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Race & Justice News: As Cities Become Safer, Racial Disparities Decrease

February 28, 2018
Report finds that as the rate of violent crime decreased in U.S. cities, other societal conditions have improved; Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego apply marijuana reforms retroactively; and more in Race & Justice News.

Race & Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Chicago Lags in Hiring African American Officers Despite Attracting More Applicants

Although the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has successfully attracted more black applicants for its force, it hired whites and Latinos at more than twice the rate of blacks in 2017, reports the Chicago Reporter. Following the CPD’s fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014, Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a campaign to recruit more black officers to improve the CPD’s relationship with black communities. While one-third of Chicago’s residents are black, only 23% of the police department is black.

African Americans comprised 13% of the 990 people recommended for employment as officers since 2016, while whites made up 37% and Latinos 38%. Experts argue that black applicants are deterred by the lengthy application process—which can sometimes take years. In addition, few legacy black police families can usher in young recruits and aspects of the hiring process—including a credit check—disadvantage African American applicants who are more likely to have faced financial hardship.

Chicago Reluctant to Correct Gang Database Errors Despite Deportation Risk

Errors in Chicago’s gang database are unnecessarily exposing black and Latino immigrants to deportation and the Chicago Police Department says that changes to the database would be “unworkable,” reports NPR. The CPD gang database has grown to include 65,000 individuals, 95% of whom are black or Latino. Luis Pedrote-Salinas is suing the CPD for his inclusion in the gang database, an inaccurate designation that he thinks cost him the chance for protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Pedrote-Salinas says he is not in a gang but there is no official process to be removed from the database in Chicago, reports Odette Yousef.

In another case, CPD acknowledged lacking evidence for labelling an undocumented man as a gang member, thus clearing his way to apply for a visa from which he was disqualified because of the label. Michael Martin, a member of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association, argues that gang databases should regularly be cleared of wrong information to protect people’s civil rights. Police departments that fail to do this, he notes, could eventually be forced to dismantle their databases.

Proposition 47 Narrowed Racial Disparities in San Francisco’s Criminal Cases

Black-white disparities in jail admissions and sentence lengths have declined in San Francisco since the passage of Proposition 47, according to a study reported in the San Francisco Chronicle. A statewide reform passed in November 2014, Prop. 47 reclassified several nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors and raised the felony theft threshold to $950. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, a major proponent of the reform, commissioned the study. The narrowing of racial disparities in case outcomes for African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians “appears to operate through a diminished effect of pre-trial detention and criminal history in determining case outcomes,” explain report authors John MacDonald of the University of Pennsylvania and Steven Raphael of the University of California, Berkeley.

Specifically, African Americans, who comprise 6% of the city’s population, had accounted for 43% of the jail bookings in the years prior to Prop. 47, but 38% afterward. The reform has also halved the black-white differential in sentence length from 3.4 months to 1.8 months. “I’m pleased we learned that the work we are doing is being done on an equal basis, but I recognize there is still disproportionality. Now we have seen the results, we can continue to evolve in what we are doing,” said Gascón.

Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego Apply Marijuana Reforms Retroactively

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes will vacate misdemeanor marijuana-possession convictions prosecuted by the city prior to Washington state legalizing marijuana in 2012, reports the Seattle Times. The reform, which will not require action by impacted individuals, is estimated to affect up to 600 people with convictions from 1997 to 2010, the year when the city stopped such prosecutions. Durkan noted that these convictions have disproportionately impacted African Americans and created barriers to obtaining housing, credit, jobs, and education. “While we cannot reverse all the harm that was done, we can give back to those people a record that says they were not convicted, because that is the more just thing to do,” said Durkan, adding that she hoped that officials at the county and state levels who handle felony marijuana cases will follow the city’s lead.

Other cities are also retroactivity applying marijuana reforms. In San Francisco, District Attorney George Gascón will apply California’s new marijuana legalization laws to misdemeanor and felony convictions going back to 1975. San Diego will also clear or downgrade past misdemeanor marijuana and felony marijuana convictions, respectively.

Cherokee Nation Lacks Jurisdiction to Sue U.S. Opioid Distributors in Tribal Court

Last year, the Cherokee Nation filed an unprecedented lawsuit against some of the largest U.S. drug distributors and pharmacies for allowing what they termed as an irresponsible amount of opioids into the tribe’s district in Oklahoma, reports High Country News. The lawsuit alleged that Walgreens, CVS, and Wal-Mart, along with the nation’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors, “flouted federal drug-monitoring laws and allowed prescription opioids to pour into the Cherokee territory at some of the highest rates in the country.” As a result of the influx of opioids, the Cherokee Nation spent $1.5 million on substance abuse treatment in inpatient facilities. However, in January, U.S. District Judge Terence Kern found that the Cherokee Nation does not have jurisdiction to file the lawsuit in the tribe’s court system. The decision comes as other tribes in the Dakotas are also filing lawsuits against the same companies.

Indefinite Solitary Confinement Ruled Biased and Unconstitutional in Canada

British Columbia’s Supreme Court has ruled that the use of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement in Canada is unconstitutional and disproportionately impacts Aboriginal individuals and those who are mentally ill, reports CBC News and The Globe and Mail. In his ruling, Justice Peter Leask noted that “beyond the risk of psychological harm inherent in the segregation experience itself,” the disproportionate use of such segregation on Aboriginal individuals limits their access to programming, thus reducing their ability to obtain conditional release from prison.

The lawsuit, which was brought against the federal government by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada, relied extensively on the expert testimony of University of California Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney. Justice Leask said he was willing to suspend the ruling for 12 months while legislators create hard limits on the amount of time that individuals can be isolated.

As Cities Become Safer, Racial Disparities Decrease

In Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, Patrick Sharkey examines how U.S. cities have seen a dramatic decline in violent crime since the 1990s, reaching their safest levels ever by 2014. As the rate of violent crime plummeted, other societal conditions began to improve. For example, the life expectancy of African American men, who are most affected by violent crime, increased so that the gap between black and white men’s life expectancy decreased from 8 years in 1991 to 5 years in 2012. Sharkey notes that the reduced threat of violence also improves children’s academic performance and raises their future income levels.

While Sharkey concludes that certain policing and incarceration measures contributed to the crime decline, he notes that “the progression toward mass incarceration is neither efficient, just, nor humane as a mechanism to control violence.” Sharkey demonstrates that community organizations also made a dent into violent crime. Resilient community members made their neighborhoods safer by mobilizing to clean up abandoned lots, create community centers, and provide jobs for community members. Sharkey views increasing investment in such community organizations as “a blueprint for a new model of urban policy.”

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