By Steve Miletich
Seattle Times staff reporter
State Supreme Court justices Richard Sanders and James Johnson stunned some participants at a recent court meeting when they said African Americans are overrepresented in the prison population because they commit a disproportionate number of crimes.
Both justices disputed the view held by some that racial discrimination plays a significant role in the disparity.
Johnson also used the term “poverty pimp,” an apparent reference to people who purportedly exploit the poor in the legal system, say those who attended the meeting.
Sanders later confirmed his remarks about imprisoned African Americans, saying “certain minority groups” are “disproportionally represented in prison because they have a crime problem.”
“That’s right,” he told The Seattle Times this week. “I think that’s obvious.”
Johnson did not respond to several messages left Wednesday and Thursday with three staffers in Olympia. He also did not respond to messages left Thursday at his home and with Sanders. Johnson’s staff said he was with the court in Spokane to hear cases at the Gonzaga University law school.
African Americans represent about 4 percent of Washington’s population but nearly 20 percent of the state prison population. Similar disparities nationwide have been attributed by some researchers to sentencing practices, inadequate legal representation, drug-enforcement policies and criminal-enforcement procedures that unfairly affect African Americans.
Some who attended the meeting say they were offended by the justices’ remarks, saying the comments showed a lack of knowledge and sensitivity.
Kitsap County District Court Judge James Riehl, who attended the meeting, said he was “stunned” because, as a trial judge for 28 years, he was “acutely aware” of barriers to equal treatment in the legal system.
Sanders, who is seeking a fourth term in the Nov. 2 general election, and Johnson, who was elected to a second term in the August primary, offered their opinions during an Oct. 7 presentation at the Temple of Justice in Olympia.
Staff from the state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), as well as Riehl and a social-justice advocate from the Seattle University School of Law, presented a report on improving the effectiveness of boards and commissions set up by the Supreme Court to ensure fair treatment in the courts for minorities and other groups.
Shirley Bondon, an AOC manager who oversees programs to remove barriers in the legal system, said that during the discussion she told the justices that she believed there was racial “bias in the criminal-justice system, from the bottom up.”
Bondon, 50, who is African American, said Sanders told others to turn to a page in the report that listed barriers to the justice system, including age, race, disability and other factors.
Sanders asked for the name of anyone who was in prison because of one of the barriers, according to Bondon and others who attended the meeting.
Sanders also stated that he didn’t believe the barriers existed, except for poverty because it might restrict the ability to afford an attorney, Bondon said.
Ada Shen-Jaffe, the Seattle University participant, responded that she didn’t have names but could provide research, Bondon and Riehl said.
Shen-Jaffe, said to be traveling, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Bondon said she told the group that African Americans comprise a small percentage of Washington’s population but comprise a much larger percentage of the prison population.
Sanders replied that African Americans commit more crimes, Bondon and others at the meeting said.
Sanders, in an interview, said he replied with words to the effect that maybe prison statistics reflect crimes that were committed.
After Sanders’ remark, Johnson said he agreed, noting that African Americans commit them against their own communities, Bondon said.
Bondon said she told Johnson that was unacceptable and that she didn’t believe that to be true.
Johnson then remarked that he believed some people are taken advantage of, and in connection with that, used the term “poverty pimp,” Bondon said.
Bondon said she didn’t know what Johnson meant by that comment but later concluded he likely was referring to legal-service workers who provide services to the poor, particularly since Shen-Jaffe has a background in that field.
Shen-Jaffe objected to Johnson’s remarks and invited Johnson to later talk informally with her about them, Bondon and others at the meeting recalled.
Johnson explained during the meeting that he had heard the term “poverty pimp” from someone else, Bondon said.
The pejorative label has generally been used to describe individuals who represent the poor for their own gain.
Justice Debra Stephens said she heard Sanders and Johnson make the comments, including Johnson using the words “you all” or “you people” when he stated that African Americans commit crimes in their own communities.
Stephens said she was surprised by the “poverty pimp” remark.
“If that were directed at me, I would have felt accused,” Stephens said, adding that she doesn’t believe that was Johnson’s intent, but instead that he chose an unfortunate phrase.
Justice Susan Owens said she heard the comments but didn’t understand what Johnson meant by “poverty pimp,” though she added that she didn’t believe he was directing the term at anyone in particular.
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said she recalled that Sanders disagreed with the premise that anyone was in prison because of race and asked for a name of someone there because of race.
She also recalled Johnson said something about African Americans committing crimes in their own communities, but that she only heard later that he used the term “poverty pimp.”
Madsen said she stopped the conversation because she didn’t think it was productive.
Some justices said they didn’t hear the comments, in part because of overlapping conversations taking place along a long table.
Riehl, the Kitsap County judge, said he was stunned that the term “poverty pimp” would be used in a meeting where the comment didn’t relate to the presentation, and that it was made in front of staff and the Seattle University representative.
Johnson made clear that he didn’t think the court’s boards and commissions should be funded and said the meeting was costing $25,000 in people’s time that could be used for better purposes, Riehl said.
“That obviously took me back a little,” Riehl said.
Johnson is widely considered to be the court’s most conservative justice.
Bondon, the AOC manager, in a written statement to The Seattle Times, said she was stunned by Sanders’ remarks.
“I know that people in all walks of life hold biases, but it was stunning to hear a Justice of the Supreme Court make these outrageous comments in my presence,” Bondon wrote.
Bondon said she took the “comments personally, as though he were saying that I and all African Americans had a predisposition for criminality and I was offended.”
Bondon said she remembered thinking that she didn’t need data or statistics to prove that she and other African Americans don’t have a predisposition for criminality.
“Just the idea that it was necessary to disprove the assertion was sickening,” Bondon said.
Johnson’s pimp comment inferred that “poor people have no right to legal representation. Where’s the justice in that?” Bondon wrote.
Sanders, in an interview, said he has a reputation for standing up for those accused of crimes but that he hasn’t seen evidence that African Americans are disproportionately imprisoned because of race.
He said his concern was for “individuals,” and that if someone is in prison for any reason other than committing the crime, “I want to hear about it.”
But statistics aren’t proof, he said.
Sanders, a self-described civil libertarian, said he had written court opinions making it clear that prosecutors can’t dismiss prospective jurors because of race.
Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this story.