I’ve never been great at math. Sure, I can do simple addition and subtraction and my brain still holds the times tables through twelve I memorized years ago and yes, I know an eighth is smaller than a quarter. But for the most part, I’ve dodged numbers.
That’s had to change in recent years because, in this time of accountability, numbers have prominence. Numbers provide an easy way to show growth or decline; they’re measurable. While they can be manipulated or misinterpreted, numbers are little facts that have a weight to them. You know the adage: Numbers don’t lie.
And so, I was intrigued by the call last week from a group of advocates for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to conduct a racial equity audit of the district attorney’s office. Even without an audit, the group’s letter to the Board of Commissioners pointed out that District Attorney Amy Weirich’s office prosecutes children in adult court more than every other DA in the state combined, and those children are overwhelmingly Black. Those numbers, even the commission admits, haven’t improved.
The group pointed to the disparity that seems to be apparent in the case of Pamela Moses, a Black woman, getting sentenced to six years and a day for attempting to vote despite her felony conviction and Brian Beck, a white, former Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy getting probation after the DA’s office dismissed multiple counts of rape of a 14-year-old girl.
The cases, of course, have different elements that may have contributed to their outcomes. But what an audit would show is whether over, say, five years, Black people have been treated by the criminal justice system in matters of plea deals, probation, convictions and charges comparable to white people in the same areas. There are sure to be disparities but do those differences make sense for the population? Are they disproportionate? Are there trends?
“The hope is that people see some of the information and react,” said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children Tennessee, one of those calling for the audit when we talked by phone.
Since the death of George Floyd, racial audits have become a thing. Orrin pointed to one done in Dallas of its housing policy. Last year, in New York, the Manhattan district attorney granted public access to more than seven years of racial data that he used to justify his approach to criminal justice reform.
But others are dodging them. I’m pretty sure that’s because a racial audit offers an opportunity to gather data that can make what is now anecdotal, reality. It’s a bracing version of “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?” A racial audit can lay bare what those in an unjust system don’t want to admit and then lay bare the resistance to do anything about what’s exposed.
It’s the height of transparency. And that’s exactly why the Board of Commissioners should commit to the audit. If they want Shelby County residents to trust in the system, there’s no reason not to do it. Unless, of course, there’s something to hide.
And DA Amy Weirich should welcome it, too.
Because of MLK50’s continuing coverage of the DA race, I’ve been reading a lot about Weirich. I recently dug up a presentation she gave to the Belmont Criminal Law Journal in 2018. Early in it, she references “Moneyball,” the 2003 book by Michael Lewis that chronicled how the Oakland A’s general manager made the baseball team competitive on a limited budget by using Sabermetrics, basically the science of baseball statistics. In other words, he used numbers — mathematics — to build a winning team. “Applying that ‘Moneyball’ philosophy from the baseball arena is, in my opinion, where we need to be heading in the next couple of years, and where our office is currently headed in a pilot basis,” Weirich says in this presentation called “Pursuing the Guilty and Protecting the Innocent Through Smart Prosecution.”
Weirich knows that numbers give evidence to what’s seen. I’m no math genius, but even I know dismissing the call for a racial audit just wouldn’t add up.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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