The North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System (NC CRED) applauds Governor Roy Cooper for establishing the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (Governor’s Task Force) and for appointing Associate Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls and Attorney General Josh Stein to lead it. NC-CRED looks forward to working with the Governor’s Task Force on this long overdue and difficult mission. As Governor Cooper said, “We must acknowledge racial inequities in our systems of law enforcement and criminal justice, and then work to eliminate them. This Task Force will address policies and procedures that disproportionately burden communities of color.” That has been NC-CRED’s mission from its inception in 2012.

NC CRED started as the North Carolina Advocates for Justice Task Force (NCAJ Task Force)  on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Criminal Justice System in 2010. The NCAJ Task Force was established in response to the American Bar Association’s call for each state to explore the role that racial bias plays in the operation of its criminal justice system. The members of the NCAJ Task Force consisted of attorneys, policymakers, community leaders, and scholars committed to studying racial bias in North Carolina’s justice system. The NCAJ Task Force’s first project was to commission a study by UNC Professor Frank Baumgartner to examine data relating to traffic stops in North Carolina; the study found a significant racial disparity in who was stopped, who was searched, and who was arrested. The NCAJ Task Force also found such racial disparities in the juvenile justice system and in the adult correctional system. In 2012, based on these findings and others, leaders of NCAJ wrote to the political and law enforcement leaders of North Carolina, including Governor Perdue, Chief Justice Parker, Attorney General Cooper, Phil Berger, and Thom Tillis, leaders of the General Assembly, and Reuben Young, Secretary of N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, to announce the formation of NC CRED and to ask for their support in the mutual pursuit of justice in North Carolina.

NC CRED is a more diverse and broadly representative organization than the original NCAJ Task Force. Its members include more than 30 criminal justice leaders and stakeholders, including judges, police chiefs, defense attorneys and Public Defenders, policymakers, advocates, district attorneys, and academics who share a commitment to building a more equitable, effective, and humane criminal justice system throughout the state. NC CRED has sponsored educational symposia on mass incarceration and on policing; led discussions on the crippling costs and fees extracted from poor criminal defendants; and sponsored a broad range of presentations to its members on the impact of race in the criminal justice system. NC CRED focuses on evidence-based analyses of racial and ethnic disparities and provides a forum for candid and explicit discussions of race by its members. Our core belief, reflected in our mission, is that “[w]hen individuals are similar in all ways except for their race or ethnicity but have vastly different outcomes in the criminal or juvenile justice systems, we can conclude that those systems are unjust and unfair.”

The announcement of the Governor’s Task Force comes at a pivotal crossroad in the fight for equal justice in this country. In the middle of a pandemic that is disproportionately taking the lives of black and brown people, thanks often to the ubiquitous cellphone, the country has witnessed a series of racist incidents that have revealed in quick succession how little Black lives have mattered. Demonstrators across the country are now invoking the names of the victims of these incidents to demand equal justice.

Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The nation saw three more Black lives senselessly and illegitimately taken by white vigilantes and law enforcement. These names are being invoked by Americans of all races to call for equal justice.

The names we remember are not just those who have been killed. They include innocent men, women, and children engaged in mundane activities whom white people have reported to the police because they appeared out of place. Black female graduate students at Yale taking a nap in the common room of their dormitory, owners moving into their homes and apartments, Black women golfing at a public course, Black children playing in a pool, and, on the same day George Floyd died, a Black man birdwatching in Central Park.

Like George Floyd’s murder and the false report of a Black birdwatcher threatening a white woman in Central Park, but for viral videos, each of these incidents likely would have been chalked up as just another day of living and dying as a Black person in America. But this time the country was watching and, in the middle of a pandemic, Americans have taken to the streets to say it’s time for America to live up to its founding principle that “all men are created equal.” In the face of such protests, public officials have felt compelled to take action. We are encouraged that Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have joined Associate Supreme Court Justice Anita Earls, whose career has been spent in the pursuit of equal justice, on this new journey to what we hope will be truth and reconciliation in North Carolina.

At the outset of this mission, NC CRED recommends that the Governor’s Task Force immediately take a relatively small but consequential action to set the stage for its work. In September 2017, NC CRED called for the “removal of all Confederate monuments, memorials, flags, and other symbols and markers of racism and white supremacy, from all public spaces on which a courthouse at any kind is located and the removal of such markers, monuments, and memorials from display inside courthouses.” On April 27, 2020, NC CRED specifically called upon the North Carolina Supreme Court “to remove the life-sized portrait of Thomas Ruffin that dominates its courtroom and the life-sized statue of him that guards the entrance to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.”  We said then that “[t]he time has come to remove him from this position of special veneration.”  We invite the Governor’s Task Force to join our call for the removal of these odious symbols.

This month, in an article in The Atlantic Magazine, David Petraeus, retired U.S. Army general and former CIA director, made a similar call to remove the names of Confederal Generals from Army bases, including Fort Bragg in North Carolina. General Petraeus wrote, “Once the names of these bases are stripped of the obscuring power of tradition and folklore, renaming the installations becomes an easy, even obvious, decision.” NC CRED believes the same is true for Confederate monuments and other symbols and markers of racism and white supremacy that share space with our courts, where people look for justice. At most, these are relatively small steps, but their significance cannot be understated. To paraphrase General Petraeus, the courts of North Carolina are not places where these monuments and symbols provide inspiration.

As the Governor’s Task Force looks forward, it must seize every opportunity to build trust with the people of North Carolina that will be necessary to achieve its difficult goals of “eliminat[ing] racial inequities in the criminal justice system and [improving] administration of justice in this state.”

We are heartened that the Governor’s Executive Order explicitly mentioned collaboration with NC CRED and we pledge to help the Governor’s Task Force in every way possible to reach these goals.

Respectfully,

James E. Williams, Jr., Board Chair

Stephen Raburn, Executive Director