The toll of the racist injustice system

July 1, 2008

THERE IS one other factor that should be added to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's list of issues ignored by Barack Obama that "have shaped the social and economic crisis in working-class African American communities"--namely, the massive number of young Black men imprisoned in the United States ("Misrepresenting the Black community").

African Americans make up about 12.4 percent of the U.S population, but over 37 percent of those in federal and state prison, and almost 39 percent of those in local jails--about three times their percentage in the population as a whole.

One in every 15 Blacks over the age of 18 is behind bars, compared to one in 106 whites. Between the ages of 20 and 34, one in nine African American men are incarcerated, almost 15 times the rate for the population as a whole (which is itself the highest in the world--almost seven times the rate in Europe) and eight times the rate for all men.

There can be little doubt that these huge disparities are the result of racism. Numerous studies have documented the existence of significant racial disparities at every stage of the criminal justice process. For example, even when controlling for other relevant factors, Blacks are more likely to be arrested and charged with an offense than whites, and Black defendants are more likely to be detained before trial than white defendants, substantially increasing the likelihood of receiving a prison sentence.

One in nine young African American men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated
One in nine young African American men between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated

Other studies have shown that unfavorable racial stereotypes often play a role in court decisions about who will receive bail and how high it will be set. Other studies have concluded that the defendant's economic status is often the deciding factor, disproportionately affecting African Americans (and members of other minority groups), who are more likely to be poor than whites.

There is also evidence that racial bias plays a role in prosecutors' decisions about whether to charge suspects, what charges to file, whether to offer plea bargains, and what deals to offer in such cases. For example, a study of King County, Washington, which controlled for factors such as past criminal record and seriousness of the crime, found that African Americans were 1.15 times more likely, and Native Americans 1.7 times more likely, to be charged with a felony than whites.

Charging decisions are often affected by the race of the defendant and the race of the victim, particularly in cases of murder and sexual assault, with Black-on-white crimes being dealt with more harshly than white-on-white, Black-on-Black, or white-on-Black crimes. This may reflect both the prejudice that Black defendants are more dangerous and the prejudice that Black victims are less worthy.

Additionally, there is evidence that minority defendants are offered plea bargains less often than whites and are offered worse deals.

Finally, there is evidence of racial bias in court proceedings, including the use of peremptory challenges by prosecutors (and sometimes defense attorneys) to remove people of color from the jury pool on the assumption that they will be less likely to convict minority defendants (and more likely to convict white defendants), manipulation of the racial prejudices of jurors, and the imposition of harsher sentences on minority defendants.

The upshot is that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to receive prison and jail sentences than whites and are sentenced to longer terms (although the importance of race can vary considerably from one jurisdiction to another).

Since 1972, the incarceration rate in the U.S. has increased fivefold and the prison population has increased over 12-fold to 2.3 million. Much of this huge increase has been due to an escalation of the "war on drugs," which has disproportionately impacted African American and Hispanic communities.

Drug arrests climbed from 581,000 in 1980 to 1.89 million in 2006, with more than 80 percent of the total for simple possession. But although drug use rates in various racial and ethnic groups are roughly comparable, the drug arrest rate for African Americans in 43 of the U.S.'s biggest cities during this period has grown by 225 percent, compared to 70 percent for whites. In 11 of the cities, the African American arrest rate increased by over 500 percent.

A study of sentencing outcomes in 34 states found that Black men are nearly 12 times more likely to be imprisoned on drug charges than white men. In 2003, over 53 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses were African American and a further 20 percent were Hispanic.

Sharp differences in drug arrest rates in different U.S. cities show that much of the racial disparity is due to decisions by local officials to concentrate enforcement in minority inner-city neighborhoods rather than, for instance, in majority white suburbs.

Laws that disproportionately impact minority groups skew the numbers further. Federal legislation enacted in the 1980s mandates a five-year sentence for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, more commonly used by African Americans—the same sentence for selling 500 grams of powder cocaine, the variant of the drug used by more affluent whites. Several states maintain similar sentencing disparities.

"School zone" drug laws, passed by many states, provide another example. These laws increase the penalties for drug offenses committed within a specified distance of schools, playgrounds, youth centers, and similar facilities. African Americans and Hispanics live disproportionately in more densely populated urban locations, where large areas of cities fall within the enhanced penalty zones. By comparison, far fewer locations in majority white suburbs and rural areas fall within the zones.

And in addition to the workings of the criminal justice system itself, it's necessary to bear in mind the greater poverty, higher unemployment, worse educational opportunities and other symptoms of institutional racism in minority communities, which fuel higher crime rates. African American and Hispanic minors are also significantly more likely to be suspended and expelled from schools, increasing their likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system.

It's about time that political figures like Barack Obama stopped wagging their fingers at young Black men and instead started to do something serious to address these shocking inequities.
Phil Gasper, Madison, Wis.

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