Race & Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
As California Legalizes Marijuana, Los Angeles City Council Considers Social Equity
As California prepares to legalize marijuana, the Los Angeles City Council is considering a “social equity” program that will help marginalized groups participate in the cannabis business, reportsThe Los Angeles Times. “For so long, people that were black, people that were Latino, we have paid the price for this business,” said City Council President Herb Wesson. While California law prevents local governments from giving preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity, the legislative proposal would provide varying levels of assistance to groups including low-income residents who have marijuana convictions or who live in neighborhoods heavily affected by marijuana arrests. The program’s benefits would include application assistance for city licensing, employee training, and assistance with finding vacant properties to rent at reduced rates. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is also considering a measure to prioritize marijuana dispensary permits for individuals with marijuana arrests or convictions, modeled after a similar program approved in Oakland.
Persistent Racial Disparity in Federal Sentencing
Federal courts imposed prison sentences on black men that were 19% longer than those imposed on similarly situated white men between 2011 and 2016, reports the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC). In addition, federal prison sentences for Hispanic men were 5% longer than those for their white counterparts. “In Demographic Differences in Sentencing: An Update to the 2012 Booker Report,” USSC researchers examine sentencing disparities by controlling for legally relevant factors such as the type of offense and criminal history—including a violent criminal history.
A major driver of the disparity, the report contends, is the frequency and extent to which federal judges depart below sentencing guidelines to determine sentences for white defendants. But other researchers have shown that “judges’ choices do not appear to be principally responsible” for the racial disparity in federal sentences, finding instead that the source of the problem is prosecutorial charging decisions—specifically, the decision to bring a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence.
Jurors’ Mens Rea Assessments May Not be Racially Biased
An experimental study by Francis Shen published in the Hastings Law Journal found that when study participants evaluated the criminal intent of characters in vignettes, they were not more likely to attribute greater culpability to those with African American versus white sounding names. Examining 16 online experiments with more than 1,200 participants and evaluation of 2,400 vignettes, “Minority Mens Rea: Racial Bias and Criminal Mental States” suggests that implicit racial bias may not affect jurors’ criminal intent assessments. Shen notes that study participants’ engagement in intense cognitive work to determine a defendant’s mental state may have diverted their attention from the defendant’s race. “The distracted brain may sometimes be a less racially biased brain,” he explains, while also cautioning that it is premature to draw policy implications from a single study.
Black Immigrants Face Disproportionate Deportation Risk
Black immigrants face a disproportionately high risk of deportation from the United States, according to Stateline. Though only nine percent of immigrants identify as black, one in five immigrants facing deportation for a criminal offense is black, according to a 2016 report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and New York University School of Law. This disparity is due in part to black immigrants facing more scrutiny than other migrant groups—such as by living in heavily policed neighborhoods.
Walking While Black in Jacksonville, Florida
Blacks received 55% of all pedestrian citations while accounting for only 29% of the population in Jacksonville, Florida, according to a ProPublica and Florida Times-Union analysis. Examining the past five years of pedestrian tickets issued in a city with one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in the nation, the analysis found no strong relationship between where tickets were issued and where pedestrians were being killed. Instead, police disproportionately ticketed black residents in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Officers were also most likely to ticket black pedestrians for some of the less familiar statutes, such as “walking in the roadway where sidewalks are provided,” and “failing to cross the road at a right angle or shortest route.”
John F. Kendrick was ordered to the ground, detained for hours, arrested and charged with jaywalking and “resisting arrest without violence” after stepping off the sidewalk into a crosswalk. (Credit: Bruce Lipsky/Florida Times-Union)
These citations typically cost $65 and if unpaid, can lead to a damaged credit history and suspended driver’s license. Even after being paid, “the tickets can cost a person points on their driver’s license or commercial license, which is especially damaging for truck and bus drivers,” the reporters note. Because pedestrian citations can lead to searches, they have also been compared to “stop-and-frisk” practices.
Long Island Police More Likely to Arrest and Jail People of Color than Whites
A Newsday report reveals that people of color in Long Island were far more likely than whites to be arrested and locked up for charges resulting from suburban-stop-and-frisk-like tactics, including for resisting arrest, trespassing, drug-related crimes, and obstruction of governmental administration. An analysis of police and court records from Nassau and Suffolk counties from 2005 to 2016 indicates that people of color (black, Hispanic, Asian/Indian and others) were arrested almost five times as often as whites, and similar racial disparity was found in the jail incarceration rate as well.
Long Island police, who are also accused of illegally working with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, say these charges result from traffic stops and the arrests are based on permissible causes or reasonable suspicion. Critics, however, say that the arrests stem from minor traffic infractions that disproportionately lead to serious charges for people of color, while whites often get a warning or a traffic ticket.
New Books Examine Race and Criminal Justice
Several recently published books advance historical and legal analyses of race and criminal justice, offering insights on how to effectively and fairly pursue public safety. Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment, edited by Angela J. Davis, highlights the multitude of ways the criminal justice system touches the lives of black boys and men at every step of the criminal justiceprocess, from arrest through sentencing. Davis, along with chapter authors Kristin Henning and Marc Mauer participated in an online discussion of the book hosted by The Sentencing Project.
Paul Butler’s Chokehold: Policing Black Men candidly discusses violence in the black community and how to keep communities safer without increased police presence. Butler highlights how the law, law enforcement, and criminal justice system work to dehumanize and further marginalize black men.
In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, James Forman, Jr. seeks to understand why many black mayors, judges, and police chiefs supported tough-on-crime measures that began in the 1970s and how to move forward. Forman discusses how prominent black officials, such as former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry, embraced tough-on-crime measures out of fear that gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by crime. However, these black officials also wanted a war on poverty, racial injustice, and joblessness.
Barry Feld’s new book, The Evolution of the Juvenile Court: Race, Politics, and the Criminalizing of Juvenile Justice, brings his readers through a history of American youth justice trends and policies that examines the systems that fail children—particularly children of color—before they arrive at the doors of the juvenile justice system. People of color experience extreme structural disadvantages in opportunities for housing, education, health care, legal representation, and public safety. These experiences directly impact the propensity for encounters with the law from an early age and lead to a disproportionate share of youth of color entering the system and moving deeper into it.