Structural Inequities in the Criminal Justice System: A Personal Account

By Phil Basso, Deputy Executive Director, APHSA VIEWS 2

I’ve never written a blog entry before, let alone a series of them! As some of you may know, I’m a bit technophobic. But this topic and my related experiences are too important to leave to my fading memory and old school ways...


This blog is about serving this past fall on a District of Columbia criminal grand jury. It’s about discovering “structural inequities” that I was sympathetic to in concept, but didn’t really understand- at all. To quote a dear colleague, I was “woke.” For me, a person serving as the deputy of a national human services association, being woke feels like being foolish- for not knowing before what I now know in my bones. But it also feels like being cleaner, wiser, and more equipped.


We all share stories and perspectives from our life’s context. As Ben Franklin said, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” I’m a middle-aged white guy from New York City’s suburban area. I grew up without a dad in the home, and my mom didn’t have a full-time job until I was six. We were poor but really didn’t know it. And we were not as poor as “those people on welfare” living a mile or so away. My hometown was 50% white, 25% black, and 25% Hispanic. I used my smarts, books of all sorts, and my adult role models to get a great education. I then spent 15 years working for Global Fortune 500 companies. “Spent time” is about right, as I never found a spiritual home there, despite finding a lot of success. APHSA has been my professional home since 2003. Within my progressive roles here, I’ve spent 1,000 days in the field, delivering technical support to many state and local agencies.


I hope you find these accounts over the next few weeks helpful and illuminating. I hope you are either inspired to act, or feel affirmed in your ongoing actions. I will try to make this interesting, and I can’t help but make it poignant. With that being said, let's start where it all began...


Like all of us, my summons to grand jury came in a small official-looking envelope, like a tax audit. Mandatory service it said, with no exceptions. I had been called to petit jury service before- the 12 people comprising a trial jury- and been picked for one. I’ve also been disqualified from some petit jury panels for admitting that I trusted testimony more from trained professionals- cops, EMT workers, and firefighters- than from family, friends and neighbors. 


But this was a grand jury, and I had no idea what one was or did. I imagined the difference was not getting sent home and back to work as quickly. Or maybe it was about hearing a more “special” case of some sort, like a white-collar criminal case. I was way wrong. Criminal grand juries in DC serve for 5 straight weeks, and then for 2 more “wrap-up” days afterwards. Grand juries hear witness testimony or other evidence for prospective criminal felony cases from DC’s government prosecutors. Felonies in DC are crimes for which you can go to jail for a year or more if convicted. The role of a grand jury is to determine whether the prosecutor and government have “probable cause” to bring a case to trial, in the form of criminal “indictments.” Did the crime probably occur, and did the accused probably do it?


Since these cases are not yet formal criminal indictments, the grand jury proceedings are held in secret. The evidence provided is limited to a prosecutor’s objective of meeting probable cause tests or requirements that fit the criminal charges in question. A DC grand jury has 23 people on it, and votes to indict or not when the prosecutor asks them to do so. A simple majority of 12 “yes” votes results in an indictment. A grand jury can request more witnesses and evidence if it likes before making its decision.  


Once this was all explained to me on my first morning of service, I quickly began thinking of my service as being for a very good cause- a shield against unfair prosecutions! We were in fact told in orientation that we were upholding the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment which guarantees the rights of criminal defendants- including the right to a public trial without unnecessary delay, the right to a lawyer, the right to an impartial jury, the right to know who your accusers are, and the nature of the charges and evidence against you.


Were we a shield as envisioned by the Founding Fathers and envied the world over? Going into my grand jury service, I sure thought so, and I was dedicated to being an excellent jurist.


*This is part 1 of an ongoing series. You can check back every Friday for more.