He knelt on the stairs of City Hall, surrounded by candles that had burned to wax puddles on some other day, from another protest on a different night here in Salt Lake City.
Richard Mauro, the executive director of the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, led a group of more than 100 public defenders Monday as they held up signs and kneeled in the rain for nearly nine minutes in memory of George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota who died after a white officer knelt on his neck for that amount of time.
These public defenders know the criminal justice system — they’re a part of it — and they know that there are racial inequities.
They know that their clients who are people of color are more likely to be arrested by police. That they are more often charged with more serious crimes. That they’re more likely to be hurt or killed when they interact with police, and that they more often are held in jail prior to a conviction and can’t afford bail.
“It has to stop now!” the crowd chanted Monday.
The attorneys gathered as part of a nationwide protest of public defenders, who took to the streets from Alaska to California to Utah to New York City to protest police brutality and seek criminal justice reform.
In Salt Lake City, their chants were heard after more than a week of daily protests. The attorneys, some dressed in suits and ties, held signs that read “Black Lives Matter to Public Defenders” and “They Can’t Breathe.”
“We are on the front lines of discrimination in the court system,” Mauro told the crowd, “fighting for our clients whose voice is oftentimes not heard.”
Recent criminal justice reforms in Utah have worked to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated — but it has primarily benefited white people.
State data shows that since the 2015 reforms, the percentage of racial minorities among new prisoners is on the rise. In the year before the reform, 34% of new prisoners were ethnic minorities. Three years later, that jumped to just over 43%.
The same is happening in the juvenile justice system. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and several other nonprofits released in 2017 showed that in Utah’s juvenile justice system, youths of color are disproportionally incarcerated.
Black youths make up 1% of Utah’s youth population, but they represented 12% of all kids placed with the Utah Division of Child and Family Services through the juvenile justice system.
In one district studied, Latino youths made up 24% of the youth population — but 52% of those sentenced to juvenile lockup were Hispanic.
Pamela Vickrey, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, told the crowd Monday that despite reforms in 2017, children of color are still overrepresented.
“We as defenders see it first hand,” she said. “And we have an obligation to raise those issues at the policy level, at the courtroom level, at every opportunity we have to raise those issues and force the court system to have a difficult conversation.”
Salt Lake County prosecutors have also called for reform, and a handful participated in Monday’s protest. District Attorney Sim Gill joined 39 other elected prosecutors nationwide in a statement released last week urging changes to put an end to “racially biased policing and police use of excessive force.”
Mauro on Monday led the group of lawyers in a series of chants of what changes they hoped to see in the criminal justice system. They want police to receive more training about bias. They want officers held accountable when they break the law, and to stop acting like an extension of the military.
And they want officers to know that they want change.
Mauro said that as protests continue in Utah and throughout the country, it’s the time to start demanding reform.
“Now is the time to make noise,” he said. “Now is the time for us to implement change. People are ready for this.”