The 9th Judicial Circuit, comprising Charleston and Berkeley counties, has the chance for a new solicitor for the first time in 13 years. In South Carolina, solicitors (called district attorneys elsewhere) represent the state as prosecutors in criminal proceedings, assign cases and advise attorneys. At a time when policing and the prison system are under intense scrutiny for racial disparities, the courts lie in the middle. Incumbent Scarlett Wilson and her challenger Ben Pogue have differing ideas of how to combat racial inequities in the local court system.
Pogue, who began his career as a meteorologist for News 2, is running on a platform of community involvement and understanding racial inequities and biases.
“It’s got to start with partnerships with that community involvement, it’s got to start with that partnership with the community,” he said. “One of our plans for racial equity is to have me, as the solicitor, but also every single one of those 40 deputy solicitors go to four community meetings a year [to just listen].”
Pogue added that the 9th Circuit needs to hire more Black attorneys, bilingual attorneys and lawyers from differing backgrounds to add new perspectives that could influence local proceedings. He also advocated for more diverse juries that reflect the area’s population, higher compensation for jurors and a racial bias audit.
“If we’ve got African-American attorneys who can speak to their life experience and who have better eyes and better ears than somebody like me, then that’s the only way we can really see all the areas of inequity that we’ve got,” he said.
“If we’ve got African-American attorneys who can speak to their life experience and who have better eyes and better ears than somebody like me, then that’s the only way we can really see all the areas of inequity that we’ve got.”— Ben Pogue
When asked what could be learned about the justice system from recent protests over police brutality, Pogue said introspection is how we will be able to move toward a more equitable society. “If we’re not able as individuals to address some of our own weaknesses and point them out and talk about them honestly, then we’re never going to move forward with this,” he said.
Wilson has been solicitor since 2007 and was the first woman elected to the position in the 9th Judicial Circuit. As the local prosecutor, she has assisted on the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a collaborative internal review undertaken by local agencies.
Data collection and analysis is an important aspect of a solicitor’s work, one Wilson hopes to use to explore potential disparities in the system, including race. “We still have to look at race and make sure that that’s not the driver and I don’t think that it is, but as I’ve learned through our work over the past six years is that institutional racism, implicit bias, runs through every corner of our country in every major institution,” she said.
In addition to racial bias, Wilson hopes to use data to track continuances and dismissals in the court system. She also wants to educate attorneys in the 9th Circuit on inequities built into the system, and provide them with a deeper understanding of the way poverty affects people.
“… I’ve learned through our work over the past six years is that institutional racism, implicit bias, runs through every corner of our country in every major institution.”—9th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson
Wilson cites recent work with Prosecutor Impact, a nonprofit that attempts to further educate and train prosecutors to achieve lower crime in communities, as an example of how the 9th Circuit is working to equity. “Training will span over months and months, for different parts of the office, not just prosecutors,” she said.
Wilson predicts budget cuts to hit the 9th Circuit in the next few years due to COVID-19, and believes her experience will help pull through. “Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, I’ve been through this before with the great recession,” she said. “So I know how to handle what I believe is coming.”
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