Ohio Public Defenders call for systemic change in criminal justice system to address racism

By: - June 9, 2020 12:30 am

Ohio Public Defenders Office staff demonstrating in Columbus. Photo by Maggie Prosser.

About 50 lawyers, administrators and investigators from the Office of the Ohio Public Defender (OPD) circled Franklin Park on Monday afternoon, honoring the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by police, and protesting police violence and racial injustice in the courts. 

The demonstration in Columbus was one of several across the country organized by the National Association of Public Defense. Earlier in the day, the Franklin County Public Defender’s Office kneeled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds outside the downtown courthouse, marking the amount of time a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck. 

“As public defenders, we spent our lives on the frontlines of America’s greatest civil rights battle,” State Public Defender Tim Young said in the Franklin Park community gardens. “And we know that it’s not just the streets that destroy lives, but those that survive their contact with police and end up in a criminal justice system that’s broken and deeply racist.” 

The group marched across the park chanting “no justice, no peace,” “we march to justice,” “public defenders won’t stop” and “black lives matter.” Midway into the socially-distanced demonstration, the attendees stopped, kneeled, sat and laid on the ground to honor Floyd. 

In a statement, OPD said statistics and studies that show black people are more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, held in jail, and more likely to be convicted, “all because of racism.” 

“The OPD team believes that it is important for us to stand up and speak out about the need for systemic change for how persons of color are treated in our country, especially in the criminal and juvenile justice system,” the statement read. “… America’s criminal justice system must change.” 

Young elaborated at the event, saying: “Every step of the (criminal justice) process has disparity simply based upon the color of one’s skin. It’s important that we remember this isn’t just about police violence, but this is about racism across our entire culture, and we have to change that.” 

Marcia Dukes, an investigator and mitigation specialist with the office, said she was inspired by young people taking action on social media and participating in protests throughout the country. She rallied the crowd to speak up against racial injustice, boycott corporations with unjust policies, and to vote in the upcoming elections. 

Brooke Burns, chief of OPD’s Juvenile Department, echoed Dukes, lauding and noting the growing diversity of recent protests. 

“As a black woman, I hope that the momentum of the past two weeks does not fade — that long after people have put away their signs and run out of hashtags, that they’re still willing to do this work everyday,” she said. “And that this wave doesn’t stop at the city square, that it spills over into our offices and our homes. That we don’t just push for equality when there’s a groundswell, but that we advocate for it everyday.

“We have to demand better from the system, we have to deliver better for our clients, and we have to push ourselves to be better in our everyday lives.” 

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Maggie Prosser
Maggie Prosser

Maggie Prosser is a rising senior at Ohio University studying journalism and political science. She previously served as editor-in-chief of the award-winning student newspaper, The New Political. She also interned for The Columbus Dispatch's Public Affairs desk and The Chautauquan Daily in western New York.