SF presiding judge says court system fair to minorities

Superior Court Judge John Stewart (Courtesy photo)

Police, courts and the rest of the criminal justice system have been at the center of public debate following numerous recent high-profile deaths of black men in police custody.

These incidents have raised questions about how bias and systemic racism are impacting people who come into contact with police. But others are now pointing to unfair treatment in the judicial system. Just this month at the Justice Summit put on by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, he and others argued that the criminal justice system unfairly treats minorities.

From arrests to sentencing and bail, minorities are disproportionately represented and treated harsher than others, the summit participants said.

The San Francisco Examiner sat down with San Francisco Superior Court Judge John Stewart, the court’s presiding judge, to talk about his thoughts on bias and racial disparities in the justice system.

Examiner: Are minorities treated unfairly in San Francisco’s courts?

Stewart: “I just don’t think that’s true. We decide each case individually.”

Examiner: Why are so many minorities in the system, especially blacks? Is it the result of systemic racism?

Stewart: “Systemically, we can’t really address that because we don’t control who gets brought into the court. All we can do is make a decision when a person’s brought before us.”

Examiner: Why are these individual cases resulting in a disproportionate number of minorities in the system?

Stewart: “We understand the concern, we understand there are some underlying inequities, but we are limited in what we can do. We have to make sure everyone who appears before us is treated fairly under the law.”

Examiner: What are you doing as head of The City’s superior courts to make sure everyone is being treated equally?

Stewart: One example is a new pretrial assessment tool we are having developed to help make sure only the people who should be in jail are in jail as they await trial. But those factors are all race neutral. What are the charges? What is the defendant’s criminal history? Have they skipped court? Do they have violent criminal history?

Bail is one area some have spoken to as evidence of unfair treatment. A rich person can bail out even if they are in jail for a serious crime while poorer defendants may be stuck in jail even for minor offenses. Examiner: What are you doing about this?

Stewart: In addition to the new pretrial assessment tool, which I spoke to, we set a bail schedule that all the judges use as a guideline. For drug offenses, we have reduced bail amounts since we don’t think people with addiction should necessarily be behind bars. When we set bail schedule annually, we look around the county to make sure we are not out of whack.

Examiner: Are critiques that the San Francisco Superior court system is unfair valid?

Stewart: It is unfair to say that. San Francisco has a wide array of alternative justice courts that try to keep people out of jail and help them rather than punish them. We expanded the veterans court, have a community justice court, and we are going to start a new youth court for people over 18. And these are just a few examples of the collaborative courts we have. Two other examples are the mental health court and drug court.

Examiner: What should people know about the courts that isn’t usually covered in the news?

Stewart: The courts are handed society’s problems and then expected to fix them. I think we do a pretty good job trying to help people rather than punish them.

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