Racism in the criminal justice system
Sunday, July 21, 1991
(By Alan Ellis)
Consider the statistics:
- One in four young black men in America between 20 and 29 is imprisoned, on parole or otherwise under the control of the criminal justice system – more than in college. For white men, the figure is one in 16.
- The United States incarcerates black males at a rate four times that of South Africa.
- Though black people make up only 12 percent of the drug users in the country, they account for a staggering 44 percent of all drug possession arrests.
- In Sacramento, where 70 percent of the people sent to prison for drug offenses are black, more than 63 percent of public drug treatment slots are given to white people.
The war on drugs continues to be targeted in the black community and has become, in reality, a war on black people.
Despite the fact that white people make up most of the nation’s cocaine and account for 80 percent of its customers, it is black people and other minorities who continue to fill up America’s courtrooms and jails, largely because, in a political climate that demands a quick fix to the drug problems, they are the easiest citizens to arrest.
Indeed, throughout America, black and Latino neighborhoods have been barricaded by authorities; roadblocks have been set up for “identification checks”; police roust them from their homes, without warrants or probable cause, to search for “evidence”; they are targeted as part of police “stop on sight” policies and they are arrested in sweep operations for minor traffic violations.
This flagrant disregard for constitutional rights is causing scandalous phenomena in cities throughout the nation.
- In New York, hundreds of black and Hispanic men have been caught in the New York Port Authority’s drug courier interdiction net. Once a suspect has been targeted by Port Authority police as fitting a “drug courier profile,” he is usually followed onto the bus, questioned, and eventually asked to permit a search of his bags. He is never told that he has the right to refuse. What makes these stops particularly outrageous is that it seems only lower-income black and Latino people, who cannot afford more expensive means of transportation, are being stopped.
- In Boston, police have made a “substantial” number of unconstitutional stops and searches of black youth, including strip searches conducted on public streets, according to a report issued in December 1990 by Massachusetts Attorney General James M. Shannon. According to the report, “these illegal searches were a result of public statements by commanding officers that minority youths in certain areas of Boston, particularly individuals suspected as being associated with gangs, should be stopped and frisked or searched, regardless of whether they were engaging in illegal activity and regardless of their constitutional rights.”
- In Florida, state researchers predict that by 1994, nearly half of black men between 18 and 24 will be locked up or under court supervision. As a consequence, a large segment of the black male population will be permanently removed from the job market and the mainstream of society by the stigma and disability of drug conviction.
Congress and every state legislature must wake up to this reality and be in the forefront of remedying discrimination in the criminal justice system. Lawmakers must work to:
- Pass the Racial Justice Act now pending before Congress that would eliminate racial discrimination in the imposition of the death penalty.
- Prohibit mass suspicionless police sweeps now permitted by a recent Supreme Court decision.
- Eliminate socioeconomic disparities in pretrial detention where only the well-to-do are able to post bond to secure their release pending trial.
- Restrict public housing evictions for drug activity in which innocent family members are made homeless through the wrongdoing of a wayward relative.
In this the year of the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the emergency of democracy in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and the repeal of South Africa’s harsh apartheid laws, it has never been more important that we as Americans honor my basic and fundamental tenet of freedom – “Equal Justice Under Law.”
Ellis, a Mill Valley attorney, is president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, a Washington, D.C.-based organization representing more than 20,000 lawyers throughout the United States.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]