Magistrate judge highlights racial and economic disparity within the court

Attendees of the potluck dinner enjoy friendly conversation at the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice Potluck and Discussion at First Congregational Church on Jan. 27, 2015. (Nicholas Cady | The Collegian)

While serving Riley County as District Magistrate Judge since 2007, Sheila Hochhauser has noticed a pattern of minority underrepresentation within the legal system.

She explained in her observations in detail at the discussion “Justice for All Guarding Against Racial and Social Disparities in Kansas Law” hosted by the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice at First Congregational Church Tuesday night, noting particular discrepancies in the number of minorities and people of lower economic status being charged in civil cases and representing themselves as pro se litigants.

“We need to put our heads together and figure out, ‘what can we do?'” Hochhauser said. “Because to me, that is the biggest problem with the legal system in gaining access to it; that people simply don’t have the money to hire a lawyer now … They’re much more expensive than when I first came to to the bench, even.”

Hochhauser then noted a work of progress with the passing of the 1990s Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which resulted in criminal history and current offense being the only objects a judge can consider when hearing a case, helping to protect defendants from convictions based on poor economic circumstances.

Hochhauser also spoke of the lack of mental treatment facilities in Kansas, particularly for adolescents. According to her, even if she does give someone an involuntary commitment to institutes such as Osawatomie State Hospital, they will not be provided appropriate long term care due to lack of space and staff.

When the floor was opened for questions, Hochhauser fielded questions about militarization of the police and the resulting increase in arrests made for crimes such as possession of marijuana. She said repeated military deployments are leading to more domestic legal issues, but that there is no more violence and crime among the military than in the general population.

The gap of minority representation was fully brought to light when, after being asked how many people serving in the legal system were minorities, Hochhauser said to the assembled crowd there were no attorneys of a minority race in Riley County.

Natasha Bailey, senior in family studies and human services, humanities, women’s studies and pre-law, said she enjoyed the discussion.

“I thought it was a good perspective, it’s relieving to hear reactions from when you don’t often hear things from people who are legislating,” Bailey said.

Brenda Mayberry, coordinator of MAPJ, said she agreed with Hochhauser’s take on increasing amounts of arrests for relatively minor crimes.

“I thought it was very good, I think she was very right,” Mayberry said. “I think there is a problem of diversity here … From my perspective, funding from when the Reagan administration was waging the war on drugs (has led to) more and more funding for police militarization. So the want to arrest … I think mediation needs to get in the minds of the police officers. To me, that’s the different attitude from when I was growing up … I think (Hochhauser) is right, we have to use different (court) systems for different things. I think the more we can do that, the better.”