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Acknowledging ‘the promise of equal justice falls short’ for some, N.H. courts aim to become more inclusive

Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester, N.H.
Dan Tuohy
“For the poor and economically marginalized in New Hampshire who cannot afford a lawyer, the promise of equal justice falls short,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald said.

The New Hampshire court system is launching an effort to improve diversity, equity and inclusion.

Announcing the initiative at an event in Manchester on Thursday, officials said the courts must do more to ensure everyone receives equal justice under the law, regardless of race, economic status and other factors.

“We want every person’s experience to be positive, whether you’re a white middle class woman like me, or a young black man, or someone who is hearing impaired or has a disability,” said Circuit Court Judge Susan Carbon, one of the effort’s co-chairs.

A group of judges and court staff are leading the project, which began last year. Its goals include training judges and staff on implicit bias, diversifying the judiciary’s workforce and engaging with the public about their experiences with the justice system, according to a strategic plan.

That plan says the judiciary will also work to correct institutional racism and other biases, using data to identify “potential systemic racism, disparate impact, unfair and exclusionary practices, and other barriers to equal and fair justice for all.” The plan calls for improving data-collection capabilities if needed.

Helping to guide the effort is an outside advisory board, which includes disability and mental health advocates, attorneys who work in legal aid and indigent defense, representatives from the New Hampshire Brazilian Council and Manchester NAACP, and law enforcement officials, among others.

Recent data shows Black and Latino people in New Hampshire continue to be arrested and incarcerated at disproportionate rates.

At Thursday’s event, James McKim, the president of the Manchester NAACP and one of the advisory board members, cited an analysis from The Sentencing Project showing Black people in New Hampshireare imprisoned at five times the rate of white people.

He said some people of color may be skeptical that the newly announced effort will lead to real change. But McKim said he’s already seen an impact on how the courts talk about these issues.

“Even if no operational or administrative changes occur, the mere fact that stories of injustices and inequities will be heard by those in the justice system will improve the system,” he said.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald said those who work in the courts know they have work to do.

“For the poor and economically marginalized in New Hampshire who cannot afford a lawyer, the promise of equal justice falls short,” he said.

The judiciary, MacDonald said, is also committed to engaging with communities of color “to learn from them about their perceptions and experiences with our justice system, to examine our own data to determine what it tells us about how we’re doing.”

Officials are encouraging members of the public to reach out with their thoughts by email at diversityinfo@courts.state.nh.us. More info about the initiative is available at https://www.courts.nh.gov/diversity.

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.