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Race & Justice News: Civil Rights Enforcement May Drop Under DeVos

May 30, 2018
Though racial and ethnic disparities in school punishment grew worse in the 2015-2016 school year, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights may be stepping back from investigating racially disparate enforcement of school discipline policies.

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California Lawmakers Seek to Strengthen Police Use-of-Force Law

In response to Sacramento police officers’ killing of Stephon Clark, California lawmakers Shirley Weber and Kevin McCarty introduced The Police Accountability and Community Protection Act (AB-931), reports The Nation. The legislation would tighten the guidelines regarding when officers can use lethal force, raising the standard from “reasonable force” to “necessary force.” The bill would allow officers to take deadly action “only when it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death” and if there is no reasonable alternative—such as verbal persuasion or de-escalation. Research on 97 of the 100 largest police departments across the country by Campaign Zero, an organization dedicated to eradicating police killings, has shown that departments strengthening use-of-force standards reduced killings by police by 25%.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, Peace Officer’s Research Association of California, and the Sacramento Police Officers Association have all come out against the proposed legislation. Peter Bibring of the ACLU of California, whose team helped write AB-931, notes: “Police unions have been writing the laws for decades so as to protect officers. This [bill] is the community finally asking to have their voice heard.

Latinos Remain Overrepresented in Texas Solitary Confinement

Although the Texas prison system has reduced the number of individuals held in solitary confinement by 4,000 over the past decade, Chron reports that Latinos remain overrepresented. According to data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Latinos, African Americans, and whites each comprise roughly one-third of Texas’s prison population. But Latinos make up about half of those in administrative segregation, though their share of the solitary population decreased by 3 percentage points between 2008 and 2017. African Americans’ share of the population in administrative segregation grew from 18% in 2008 to 25% in 2017.

Criminalization of Latino Residents in Montgomery County, NY

In 2015, New York State’s Montgomery County had a jail incarceration rate that was double that of New York City, reports the Vera Institute of Justice. While New York City’s jail incarceration rate dropped 60% since 1991, the rate in rural upstate New York increased by 66%, writes Jack Norton. Montgomery County’s political leaders and criminal justice practitioners pursued policies that filled the county’s large jail, newly built in the 1990s, and disproportionately filled it with the region’s Latino residents, most of whom live in the small deindustrialized city of Amsterdam.

“I made a lot of money for the city,” says Howard Aison, Amsterdam City Court’s now retired judge. Aison had a policy of imposing maximum fines in every case and jailing people who did not pay. While the county’s jail incarceration rate has decreased by 30% under his replacement, Judge Lisa Lorman, many residents now believe that “Amsterdam is a city where Latino people are routinely harassed by the police.” Forty two percent of the county’s Latinos live in poverty. In 2014, Amsterdam’s City Council outlawed playing basketball “on or near city streets.” A resident of Amsterdam’s historically Latino neighborhood observed: “The YMCA is gone now. So the kids play basketball on the streets. Then they made basketball on the streets illegal, and I would actually see police in this neighborhood out ticketing people for basketball.” Reflecting on the area’s current criminal justice problems, Aison underscores the need for more media attention: “People do whatever they want. No one is watching.”

African Americans Paid Most of the $6.4 Million in Money Bail in New Orleans

African Americans in New Orleans are arrested at two and a half times the rate of whites and are less likely to be able to make bail, resulting in 87% of the city’s jail population being black, reports The Times-Picayune. “We’re using public money to suck private money out of the poorest communities to get results that are failing,” said Flozell Daniels Jr., an author of a new report by The Data Center. The city’s African Americans paid 84% of the $6.4 million dollars in bond premiums and associated fees in 2015, according to research by the Vera Institute of Justice. Daniels and co-authors Jon Wool and Benjamin Weber encourage New Orleans to follow the leadership of Washington, DC, New Mexico, and New Jersey and move away from money-based detention.

The city has made strides towards reform in recent years. Judges have increased the number of arrested people they release on their own recognizance, which requires no up-front payment. Last year, the City Council required the Sheriff’s Office to release most people upon being booked. This summer, courts will implement the Public Safety Assessment Model, a tool that will help judges better determine who poses a public-safety risk.

Resident Complaints Do Not Explain New York City’s Marijuana Arrest Disparities

African Americans have been arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of whites over the past three years in New York City, reports the New York Times. Latinos have been arrested at five times the rate of whites. In a recent testimony to lawmakers, a senior police official attributed this disparity to more frequent police complaints about marijuana from residents of predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. People in poor neighborhoods may be more likely to make marijuana-related police calls because they are less likely to have a responsive landlord, building superintendent, or co-op board member who can field their complaints. However, The Times found that among neighborhoods where residents made similar rates of marijuana police calls, the police made arrests at higher rates in areas with more people of color. Although New York City’s marijuana possession arrests have declined to half of their level under the previous mayor, there are still 17,000 such arrests each year.

In response to The Times’ analysis, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the police would overhaul their marijuana enforcement policy within 30 days to “end unnecessary arrests.” The District Attorneys of Manhattan and Brooklyn are also considering plans to stop prosecuting the vast majority of people arrested on low-level marijuana charges. James P. O’Neill, police commissioner, said he would convene a working group to review marijuana enforcement tactics.

Civil Rights Enforcement May Drop Under DeVos

Though racial and ethnic disparities in school punishment grew worse in the 2015-2016 school year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights may be stepping back from investigating racially disparate enforcement of school discipline policies. Youth of color are more likely to receive harsher punishments—such as out-of-school suspension and expulsion—for equivalent behaviors as their white peers, and are more likely to be arrested in school for those behaviors. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office found that these disparities “persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.” Researchers from Princeton University also found that LGBTQ students are punished more harshly than their counterparts.

Thirteen-year old Trah’Vaeziah Jackson’s experience of being sent to juvenile detention for horseplay at school in Bryan, Texas illustrates this problem. The Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights had investigated the treatment of youth of color in Bryan, but was unable to complete a settlement with the school district before Trump appointees assumed control. As Mother Jones and ProPublica report, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has indicated that “she may soon reverse Obama-era guidelines on disparate impact and school discipline, and her hires have signaled this policy shift.”

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