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October 25, 2012 (The Sentencing Project)

Race and Justice News


Policy: Racial Justice Improvement Project
Localities Challenge Federal Immigration Enforcement Efforts
Courts: Stop-and-Frisk Lawsuits in New York City
North Carolina's Revised Racial Justice Act


Racial Justice Improvement Project

Many decisions throughout the criminal justice system are based on informal policies and practices that allow for discretion. They include decisions about whether defendants will be detained prior to trial or offered a plea bargain, or whether parolees will be sent back to prison for minor technical violations. As Cynthia Jones (Associate Professor of Law at American University) explains, discretion can be employed fairly and in a bias-free manner. But, it can also lead to patterns of racial disparities. The American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section, in collaboration with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, is taking steps to address points in the criminal justice process where members of minority groups are adversely affected by discretionary decision making and develop evidence-based reforms to correct disparities.

As part of the Racial Justice Improvement Project, the state of Delaware and jurisdictions within Minnesota, New York, and Louisiana established task forces to address racial disparities. Task force members included, among others, criminal justice officials with the ability to change and implement policies and practices. During the first year of the project, each jurisdiction collected and analyzed data to identify a point of racial disparity that was caused by and could be redressed by a discretionary policy or practice. Now in its second year, each jurisdiction is enacting reforms. These reforms target changes in the role of judges and of probation officers during arraignment, policies that govern the discretion of probation officers in supervising probationers, and identifying additional nonviolent offenders for diversion programs. Thus far, the results of the project suggest that jurisdictions can institutionalize racial justice reform efforts by creating racial justice task forces.

Localities Challenge Federal Immigration Enforcement Efforts

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck wants to limit the number of people charged with low-level offenses who are turned over to federal immigration authorities for potential deportation. Under a federal program called Secure Communities, the fingerprints of individuals who are booked into jails are passed along to the FBI and, in turn, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. If ICE determines a person may have violated immigration regulations, they issue a detainer request asking local authorities to hold the person and turn him or her over to immigration officials for possible deportation.  Chief Beck does not want to grant ICE detainer requests without reviewing the seriousness of the offense for which the person is being held, their arrest history and gang involvement. He believes that turning people over to ICE undermines public trust and unnecessarily splits up families. The plan must be approved by the Police Commission.

The categories of crimes that may subject a person to deportation have increased at the same time that avenues for obtaining relief from deportation have decreased. Stacey Caplow of Brooklyn Law School explains that deportation might be avoided by a pardon for the criminal offense by a chief executive. She points to the pardon panel New York Governor David Paterson established in 2010 specifically to consider applications from people who are immigrants as a model for other governors.

Stop-and-Frisk Lawsuits in New York City

Three proposed class-action lawsuits have been filed in federal court in Manhattan challenging the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices. In response to one of the suits, a city attorney recently asked the courts not to grant an injunction in the Bronx against aspects of a citywide program that targets mostly low-income housing buildings. The New York Civil Liberties Union contends that last year, 1,137 of 1,857 stops in the Bronx of people suspected of criminal trespass were made without reasonable suspicion and were potentially unlawful, noting that some people are being stopped entering and leaving their own homes. According to the City, the police have implemented training and are internally scrutinizing the stops. Testimony in the case is ongoing. The judge hearing the Bronx case, however, allowed another stop-and-frisk lawsuit to proceed earlier this month.

North Carolina’s Revised Racial Justice Act

North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act is landmark legislation that originally allowed death row inmates to rely on statistical evidence of racial discrimination to substantiate a claim of racial bias. The statute was revised in June to require that defendants demonstrate that prosecutors discriminated in their particular case, making it more difficult to prove racial bias. Three cases are currently being tried under the revised Racial Justice Act. The plantiffs are all asking for relief on the grounds that prosecutors struck otherwise-qualified black jurors for their cases at more than twice the rate of white individuals.

Issue Area(s): Racial Disparity