By CLAIRE FOX
For The News-Letter
Dawn Porter, attorney and award-winning director and producer, spoke as part of the JHU Forums on Race in America on Wednesday, Dec. 1 in Shriver Hall, where she discussed the intersection of race and class inequities in the American criminal justice system.
After working as a corporate lawyer in Washington, D.C., Porter moved to New York to work as Director of Standards and Practices at ABC News and as Vice President of Standard and Practices at A&E Networks. From there, she realized her passion for film.
A lawyer by training but a filmmaker by calling, Porter directed and produced Gideon’s Army, a 2013 documentary following three public defense attorneys in Atlanta who represented low-income clients. Gideon went on to win the 2013 Sundance Editing Award and the Tribeca All Access Creative Promise Award. It is currently available to stream on Netflix.
During her presentation, Porter spoke about the main topics that appear in her documentary and what truths she learned during the filmmaking process. She began by displaying the statistics of the top three countries in the world with the highest prison population: the United States at 1.5 million incarcerated individuals, China at 1.5 million and Russia at 874,000. She emphasized that there is something inherently off-putting about these numbers, especially given that China is four times our population size.
“When you think of our status in comparison to our international neighbors, there’s something happening here,” Porter said. “I don’t think that there are people here more criminally inclined than all of the citizens in the rest of the world, and yet we are by far the country with the highest percentage of people who are locked up.”
Porter asked the audience to think about their answers to a few questions involving drug use and the criminal justice system.
“Any of you know anyone who occasionally use marijuana in college campuses? Do you hear of a lot of drug raids in college campuses by the police… at the Ivy Leagues? At Hopkins? Of course not,” she said. “Are drugs less illegal on college campuses? What is considered a rite of passage for upper income neighborhoods, down in the corner of Baltimore, is a felony — a felony with quite significant penalties.”
She continued by stating that black men have the highest incarceration rate in every age group and are four to 10 times more likely to be incarcerated in their lives. Nearly half of all black men in the U.S. will be arrested by the age of 23.
Porter went on to say that people should care about these statistics because of their overall impact on the community.
“One of the sociological impacts of the kid being arrested on the street over there is that the kid in the classroom here is not distinguishable for many people [or] for the media,” Porter said. “No one’s asking to see your Hopkins I.D. card. They see your race and your gender, and they make those flash assumptions about who you are.”
In turning the discussion to the topic of representation in courts, she mentioned the police officers on trial for Freddie Gray’s death.
“We should all welcome their trials; They are getting something that most defendants do not have, which is a day in court,” Porter said. “The overwhelming number of people brought into the criminal justice system do not have that basic experience… It’s a real problem when you think that our constitutional democracy is premised on the idea of innocent until proven guilty. Today, that has completely been turned on its head,” she said. “Most people do not have the experience of serving their day in court.”
Porter also spoke about public defenders.
“We have lots of people being arrested in poor communities. And 80 percent of the people brought into the criminal justice system are represented by public defenders,” she said. “If we put those things together, what do you have to be to have a public defender? You have to be poor. And 95 to 97 percent of those people are going to plead guilty. So who are the people not having their day in court? Poor people.”
The public defenders that Porter met during her filmmaking process each had more than 150 felony cases in addition to between 500 and 700 misdemeanor cases.
“When you think about the fact that the overwhelming amount of people thrown into this system are poor and need public defenders, you start to see how this is a huge crisis for us,” she said.
In regards to why so many plead guilty, Porter relates it to federally imposed minimum sentences for certain crimes — particularly drug crimes, which constitute half of all federal crimes in the U.S. Often, defendants find it more rational to plead guilty than take the risk of not being found innocent.
“Often there is a high incentive to plead guilty, particularly if you are being represented by an overworked, underpaid person who met you the day of trial,” she said.
A large proponent of criminal justice reform, Porter concluded that more people need to have conversations about how these situations affect our society as a whole.
“There is this feeling that for some people and for some types of crimes, we’re pushing them through a system that creates a second class of citizens. It creates a group of felons, and this is a huge problem.”
Porter’s third documentary, Trapped — which details the decline in the number of American abortion clinics — was recently finished and will premier at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival as part of the U.S. Documentary category.