ABA Report identifies ways for lawyers to help build trust in American justice system

The American Bar Association’s Task Force on Building Public Trust in the American Justice System recently released a report outlining ways for lawyers and communities to work together to build public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.

“The lack of trust by citizens in our justice system is deeply troubling and we must find ways to rebuild that confidence so that our communities across our diverse country are stable and secure,” said ABA President Linda A. Klein.

The report produced by a 15-person task force representing a diverse mix of representatives from law enforcement, prosecutors’ offices, the judiciary, state and federal government, law firms and nonprofits, documents a range of recent events and other factors that have undermined public confidence in the criminal justice system, from communities traumatized by police killings of civilians, who are often unarmed black men, to police officers ambushed and killed by gunmen apparently seeking revenge.

In response, the ABA convened the task force in July 2016 to advise its Board of Governors on how the legal profession can develop solutions.

The task force recommends three broad recommendations aimed at reform, consensus-building and education. While the task force acknowledged there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, the report concluded that the ABA, state and local bar associations and minority bar associations should:

• Encourage the adoption of best practices for reforming the criminal justice system.
• Build consensus about needed reforms and work to carry them out.
• Educate the public about how the criminal justice system works.

“As a leader and convener, the American Bar Association is uniquely positioned to help find solutions,” said Klein. “The ABA will encourage all in the legal profession to read this report, to get involved, to educate the public and to provide the tools for communities to unite. This won’t be solved overnight, but I am confident that lawyers will dedicate their talents to this task and achieve what we all want: safe communities and a respect for the rule of law.”

Listening to diverse perspectives and taking them seriously are essential to understanding a problem and considering solutions, the report says. To implement these recommendations, the report suggests bar associations should facilitate dialogue among stakeholders in the criminal justice system, not just police officers and community leaders, but prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges as well.

The ABA and other bar associations have the credibility necessary to foster collaboration and compromise, but consensus building is not an abstract exercise. It requires people to meet face to face. The dialogue must occur in legal conferences, continuing legal education panels and law school classes; in courthouses and legislative hearings; and in police stations, schools and community centers. Social media and other technological resources must also be employed to reach as many stakeholders as possible.

The task force was chaired by Theodore V. Wells Jr. of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison LLP. Monique Dixon of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund provided research and writing support as task force reporter.

A full copy of the report can be read at ambar.org/publictrust.