A new statewide report on judicial demographics reveals stark disparities between the demographic composition of the bench and the rest of New York State.
In 2019, only 15% of the population in New York State was Black, yet Black people accounted for 38% of all adult arrests, and nearly half of all people being sent to prison, according to the most recent data.
Despite this, those who are doing the sentencing are mostly white.
According to the report, compiled by the chief administrator of the courts, 69% of judges who responded are white, while only 14% are Black or African American.
Hon. Erika Edwards sits on the New York Supreme Court and is one of the few Black judges in the state. She said that the disparate numbers along racial lines when it comes to sentencing exhibit the ways in which the system disenfranchises people of color.
“To me, the judiciary does not adequately reflect the communities in which it serves,” Judge Edwards, who also serves as president for the Judicial Friends Association (JFA), an organization founded by African American judges in New York, said. “It presents the lack of trust in the court system, lack of access, people don’t feel comfortable sometimes using the courts…They just feel like maybe the deck is stacked against them.”
The report relies on the self-reported responses of judges throughout the New York State Unified Court System. Only 9% of judges who responded identified as Hispanic or Latino, while 3% are Asian. The report also found only one Native American judge in the state, despite recent census estimates of 200,000 Indigenous Americans living in New York.
That means that while non-white persons in New York comprise nearly 40% of the state’s total population, they are only represented by 18% of its judges.
The study is the first comes as the result of a new law, passed in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, that requires the New York to standardize the collection and publication of demographic information about the judiciary.
“In the judicial system, increased diversity helps ensure impartial outcomes and builds public confidence in our courts,” State Senator Brad Hoylman, who co-sponsored the measure with State Senator Luis R. Sepúlveda, said to WNYC/Gothamist. “But policymakers only now have a semblance of a picture of the demographics of our judiciary.”
The demographics are to be reported annually, with all the statistics published in one place. Not only will race and ethnicity be recorded, but responding judges will be asked to denote their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, and veteran status.
Both Hoylman and Judge Edwards agree that the problem may lie in the fact that some judges are appointed, by either mayors across the state or the governor, versus being elected.
“Appointments that have been made have been consistently white,” Hoylman said. “So we need to make sure that decision makers think about diversity as they consider future appointments.”
Of the 314 judges appointed in New York who responded to the survey, 208 were white. The same report found that 49 appointments were of a Black or African American judge, 35 Hispanic or Latino, and 16 were Asian.
“We’ve made tremendous strides but it just hasn’t gone far enough,” Judge Edwards said. “[We need] politicians and constituents to put pressure on the mayor and the governor to consider diversity as an important issue, which I’m not saying they don’t but it’s just not reflected in the appointments that have been made.”
Judge Edwards says that for real change to occur, the public needs to continue to press policymakers to consider more diverse candidates for the judiciary, and to encourage applicants of color to come forward and take the next step in their careers.