Ken Plum: Racial diversity in the Virginia justice system

ken plumA group of attorneys, the Virginia Coalition for Racial Diversity in the Justice System, earlier this year brought to the attention of the community and the General Assembly that “there is a glaring, longstanding, and inexcusable lack of racial diversity amongst sitting judges, prosecutors, and public defenders in Virginia’s criminal justice system.”

Their statistics are very revealing: Currently, in Northern Virginia where more than 33 percent of all residents are racial minorities, only 7 out of 74 judges (10 percent) are African American, Hispanic, or Asian American. They project that if the General Assembly continues to fail to appoint racially diverse judicial candidates that it is likely within two years only 4 out of 74 of those judges (5 percent) will be minority. The Coalition also found that racial diversity among virtually all of Northern Virginia’s Commonwealth Attorney and Public Defender Offices is similarly bleak.

The bottom line for their study is that “the public’s confidence in the fairness and impartiality of the Virginia justice system is undermined when the system bears so little resemblance to the community it serves.”

A look at the concern in each of the communities in Northern Virginia indicates that the disparity is pervasive. Fairfax County is currently 52 percent white (non-Hispanic) according to the Census Bureau, down from the 64.4 percent in the 2000 Census.The County is most likely to be a majority-minority community by the time of the 2020 Census. Prince William County has already reached that status with the white non-Hispanic population having dipped to 45.7 percent. The racial composition of the judiciary has not changed as the population has shifted. In Fairfax County, there are 32 judges only one of whom is African American and two of whom are Asian American. In Prince William County there is only one minority judge who is African American among the 15 judges. Other Northern Virginia jurisdictions have the same under-representation of minorities: Alexandria 2 for 7, Arlington 1 for 8, and Loudoun 0 for 12.

Although the Coalition report did not provide specific numbers, the same situation of under-representation of minorities apparently exists in the offices of the Commonwealth Attorneys and the Public Defenders. The issue at the level of the Commonwealth Attorneys’ and Public Defenders’ offices could be addressed through personnel policies that emphasize a balance of the racial composition of the community in the selection of staff members. Judges are elected by the General Assembly, and the members of the Northern Virginia delegation need to be mindful of greater representation of minorities on the bench.

Bar association recommendations are important to the selection process and need to include recommendations from associations of minority bar members including the Hispanic Bar Association of Virginia, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Virginia, and the Northern Virginia Black Attorneys Association. In addition there is the Virginia Women Attorneys Association, and the issue of gender imbalance on the courts also needs to be addressed. I look forward to working with other members of the delegation in addressing this issue.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

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