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Voting Rights

North Carolina Court Re-Enfranchises People on Probation and Parole

The Wake County Superior Court overturned North Carolina’s voting ban for people serving felony probation, parole, and post-release supervision, joining 22 other states that allow all citizens who are not incarcerated to vote. This ruling re-enfranchises 56,000 North Carolinians—42% of whom are African American. In Community Success Initiative v. Moore, the court concluded that North Carolina’s voting restriction violated the state’s constitution, “both because it discriminates against African Americans and because it denies all people on felony supervision the fundamental right to vote.”

The trial included expert testimony from professors including Vernon Burton of Clemson University and Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina—experts in American history and political science, respectively. Burton explained that felony disenfranchisement was introduced as an amendment to the North Carolina Constitution in 1875, with the “overarching aim … to instill white supremacy and particularly to disenfranchise African American voters.” The amendment came as a part of a backlash against African American suffrage—coinciding with constitutional provisions banning interracial marriage and requiring segregation in public schools. Baumgartner noted that in 2019, African Americans represented 21% of the state’s voting-age population, but 42% of those disenfranchised under the law. In an amicus brief, The Sentencing Project argued that the law unduly muted the voices of Black North Carolinians in public affairs by amplifying the hardship that the criminal justice system disproportionately visits upon Black Americans.

Courts

State Supreme Courts Lack Racial Diversity

In nearly half the country, state supreme courts are all white. Twenty-two states have no supreme court justices of color, including 11 states where people of color represent over 20% of the population, reports the Brennan Center for Justice. According to Brennan’s report on State Supreme Court Diversity, there are no Black justices in 28 states, no Latinx justices in 40 states, no Asian American justices in 44 states, and no Native American justices in 47 states. While people of color make up nearly 40% of the U.S. population, they represent only 17% of justices in state supreme courts.

State supreme court justices have immense influence over the populations they represent. State courts hear 95% of all cases filed in the United States, and state supreme courts set precedents for lower courts. This year, the Delaware Supreme Court published the nation’s first detailed guide on increasing judicial diversity. The guide traces the current racial disparities among state supreme court justices to a lack of legal and judicial diversity: “fewer people of color go to college, which means that fewer still will attend law school and become attorneys and judges.” The report recommends a system-wide approach to addressing these disparities, including improving K-12 civics education, creating mentorship programs for attorneys of color, requiring attorneys to participate in implicit bias training, and increasing outreach efforts to attorneys from diverse backgrounds to pursue judicial careers.

Policing

Racial Bias in Facial Recognition Technology

Facial recognition algorithms, often used by law enforcement to identify potential suspects, can reinforce racial bias within the criminal legal system. A 2019 study from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of 189 facial recognition algorithms used worldwide found the software to be 10 to 100 times more likely to misidentify people of certain demographic groups. A 2018 study from MIT and Microsoft Research revealed that facial recognition algorithms were least accurate when identifying darker-skinned women, with an error rate of nearly 35%; in contrast, the maximum error rate for white men was 0.8%. Law enforcement facial recognition networks have photos of approximately half of American adults.

Racial disparities in facial recognition algorithms can result from biased data, improper use, and a lack of regulations and protocols. Biased data includes data sets that lack non-white faces, referred to by researchers as “demographic bias,” as well as those which oversample people of color. According to Patrick Grother, lead biometric scientist for the NIST report, facial recognition algorithms identify a list of likely candidates that are supposed to be examined by a human investigator who must collect additional evidence (e.g., eyewitness testimony or forensic evidence) prior to making an arrest. However, these steps are not always followed, which can result in arrests of people who have been misidentified by facial recognition algorithms. While some state lawmakers are establishing standards to regulate the use of facial recognition algorithms, Virginia lawmakers recently approved lifting their state’s ban on the use of unauthorized technology.

Reform

Tennessee’s Reformed Drug-Free Zone Sentencing Law Becomes Retroactive

Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee signed a bill making the state’s 2020 drug-free-school-zone reform retroactive. The new law will give people a chance to reduce their elevated sentences if their offense occurred beyond 500 feet of the school or if it could be proven that the offense did not harm or endanger any children. “All 50 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of drug-free school zone law,” Nicole Porter and Tyler Clemons of The Sentencing Project noted in 2013, explaining that these laws disproportionately affect people of color and economically disadvantaged citizens who live in urban, high-density population areas.

While the 2020 reform has mitigated the law’s disproportionate effect on people of color and individuals living in low-income neighborhoods, nearly 400 already-sentenced individuals were left out. Some of the key aspects of the 2020 reform include reducing the size of drug-free school zones from 1,000 to 500 feet and also eliminating the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in the school zone, leaving it to the court’s discretion on whether to use the sentencing enhancement.