Published: April 2023
Written by: Cheo Reid & Schnelle Tonge
A primary goal of diversifying a workplace is to provide more inclusive and competent service to its clientele. In the criminal justice arena, that goal is just as important as in any other field of occupation. For many who encounter the criminal justice system, whether as a victim of a crime, a witness, or the accused, first impressions that include diversity may impact their belief in the fairness of the system. Sometimes that diversity is more than just the color of our skin, but it includes diversity of background, thoughts, ideas, age, and culture. Decisions on whether and how much to cooperate with the prosecution of a case are often influenced by a witness’ comfortability with and level of trust in the lawyers and other system professionals with whom he or she interacts, trust that is developed through effective and culturally competent communication. For an individual accused of a crime, having counsel who understands how cultural norms can impact behavior may be the difference between a successful explanation of seemingly suspicious behavior and an unfavorable verdict.
Demographic and statistical data reflect that the county is growing in its diversity
The December 2022 data published by the U.S. Census notes Florida as “the fastest-growing state in 2022, with an annual population increase of 1.9%, resulting in a total resident population of 22,244,823”.1 Recent census data reflect 52.6% of Palm Beach County population reporting as White alone, not of Hispanic or Latino origin, 20.1% reporting as Black or African American alone, 23.9% reporting as having Hispanic or Latino origin, and 3% reporting as Asian alone.2 Palm Beach County hosts the fifth largest school district in the state and services students who speak 150 languages and dialects.3 The Florida State Courts Administrator reports a steady increase in use of language interpreter services in Palm Beach County court cases in each of the 4th quarter reports published for the last several years.4 With an increasingly diverse population, the demographics of the victims, witnesses, and defendants in criminal cases continue to become more diverse which requires those representing the interests of the citizens and defendants to be diverse and operate with cultural awareness.
The need for diversity amongst the lawyers in the criminal justice system extends beyond aesthetics. Diversity in the workplace leads to benefits from both an internal and external perspective. A diverse workforce brings people with different experiences, skills, perspectives and insights together to think creatively on how to solve problems and informs better decision making. Across the nation, criminal justice professionals have been engaging in discussions regarding social justice, implicit bias, and ethnic disparities in the system.
As communities have become more aware of the long-term effects of systemic racism, lawyers working in the system have an increased duty to respond to the residents and defendants they represent in a culturally competent manner. Being aware of and understanding cultural norms and recognizing the impact of historical injustices on behavior patterns and attitudes, help to establish trust in the fairness of the system for all of its participants.
Cheo Reid is an Assistant State Attorney who serves as the Chief of the Juvenile Division. He is a member of the Palm Beach County Bar Association, F. Malcolm Cunningham, Sr. Bar Association, and the National Black Prosecutors Association.
Schnelle Tonge is an Assistant Public Defender who serves as the Chief of Client Services and Mental Health Division. She is a member of the Palm Beach County Bar Association.