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Documentary Exposes State’s Racial Bias

By Ruth Bruno

Only 11 percent of Connecticut’s population is African-American, yet they make up 42 percent of the state’s prison inmates, according to Lubbie Harper Jr., Connecticut Supreme Court Justice and Chair of the Commission, who spoke before the screening of the documentary “The Color of Justice.”

CCSU students and visitors gathered on Tuesday, April 1, to watch a screening of  the documentary and voice their opinions about Connecticut’s juvenile justice system.

Harper went on to say that Hispanics make up 14 percent of Connecticut’s population, yet they accounted for 26 percent of Connecticut inmates.

Harper used these statistics to convey that people of color are not being treated equally in Connecticut and as a call for reform. “We need action if we are to effectively combat racial and ethnic disparity and the negative effects it has on our communities,” Harper told audience members.

“The Color of Justice” deals with individual stories of public officials, police officers and African-American and Hispanic teenagers.

Christine Rapillo of the Office of the Chief Public Defender appeared in the documentary to share her experiences. “Any given day you could walk into our state juvenile detention centers and you’d be hard pressed to find a light colored face. You don’t need a study to walk into a courthouse and see nothing but faces of color to know there’s a problem somewhere,” said Rapillo.

The documentary cited a study by the Center for Disease Control in which high school students anonymously reported their behavior.  The survey found that students of all races committed the same crimes with the same frequency, which has led some psychologists and state officials to believe that police officers are biased toward African-Americans and Hispanics.

Jack Glasser, a doctor of social psychology, appears in the documentary saying that bias is not necessarily easy to avoid.

“Stereotypes are totally normal in human cognition. We draw on mental shortcuts and proper knowledge. That’s totally normal, but highly undesirable especially in positions of power,” said Glasser, who went on to say that implicit bias can be reduced if those who practice it become more aware that they are doing so.

The documentary was produced by Connecticut Public Television, and was sponsored and shown at CCSU by the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparity in the Criminal Justice System in partnership with the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance (CJJA) and the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee. The commission’s visit to CCSU was one of at least 30 forums being held statewide.

After the screening, Michelangelo Palimieri, probation supervisor for the Middletown Superior Court for Juvenile Matters, spoke to the audience and said that racial profiling is still a problem in America.

“We experience the world and view it differently based on our own personal experiences. Most white Americans see America as color-blind, but nearly 80 percent of African-Americans do not,” said Palimieri.

Lara Herscovitch, Deputy Director of the CJJA, spoke to the audience and said the alliance is looking at juvenile review boards and working to prevent the detention of children and teenagers who have committed minor, non-violent crimes such as smoking cigarettes and disorderly conduct.

“We have done a good job of turning the tide and looking at prevention and looking at juvenile review boards…we have a long way to go still,” said Herscovitch.

She encouraged attendees to host their own forums and discuss racial bias in America’s juvenile court systems.

“I like how everything they talked about was focused on youth in Connecticut. I also like how it connected with issues that the United States continues to suffer from,” said Thomas Feliciano, a CCSU student. Feliciano said he feels that the topics presented in the film are important issues that need to be talked about.

“The inequality and hierarchy that exists in our society is something I’m really aware of. It’s something we just don’t talk about in our society,” said Victoria Sklepinski, another CCSU student who attended the screening. “If we’re ever going to bring social change into our communities then we need to open up the dialogue for these kinds of issues.”