Race and Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
During the coronavirus pandemic our organization is directing its research and advocacy efforts towards depopulating prisons and jails, as recommended by public health experts. We also remain committed to our ongoing work. People of color comprised 50% of the jail population and 70% of the prison population in 2017. Public officials’ response to calls to depopulate prisons and jails therefore disproportionately affect people of color and their families, as well as the communities in which correctional facilities are located. This newsletter provides an overview of the ongoing efforts to understand and address the racial disparities in criminal justice.
The Struggle to Correct a Flawed Police-Use-of-Force Study
When Dean Knox and Jonathan Mummolo found faulty logic and erroneous statistical reasoning in a study finding no racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings based on officers’ race, it took months of public protest for the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to publish their letter. By then, the study had been included in U.S. congressional testimony as evidence that policing is not racially biased.
The problem with the study, the scholars explained, was that its authors focused only on data on fatal police shootings, ignoring instances in which officers did not fatally shoot people. Mummolo has argued that the journal editors should have retracted the original article or added a note indicating the error. Instead, the journal published a reply from the original authors acknowledging some of their error. “Framing the issue as a ‘debate’ is the worst option,” wrote Mummolo. In a Washington Post Op-Ed, he and Knox noted: “The difficulty of fixing blatant mistakes in academic publications threatens not only the advancement of science but also the promise of evidence-based policymaking.”
Racial Inequities in New York Parole Supervision
“New York sends more people back to prison for non-criminal, technical parole violations than any state except Illinois,” explain Kendra Bradner and Vincent Schiraldi, and the state’s parole policies disproportionately impact black and brown communities. Technical parole violations, which accounted for 85% of prison returns for parole violations in 2017, include causes such as missing an appointment, being out past curfew, or testing positive for alcohol. In their report for Columbia University’s Justice Lab, the authors explain that the number of black and Latinx New Yorkers under supervision is 6.8 and 2.5 times the rate of their white counterparts, respectively, and they are significantly more likely to be jailed pending a violation hearing, and to be re-imprisoned for a parole violation.
To reform parole’s role as a driver of mass incarceration for people of color, Bradner and Schiraldi recommend shortening parole supervision periods, limiting the use of jail detention while adjudicating alleged parole violations, and limiting the use of incarceration for technical violations. Schiraldi has noted that The Less Is More Act, which closely tracks these recommendations and has a broad coalition of support, has gained special urgency amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
“Misogynoir” Against Black Female Prosecutors
Marilyn Mosby, State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, is among the 1% of elected prosecutors in the country who are black women, reports ABC News in its coverage of U.S. prosecutors who are women of color. The majority of 2,400 elected prosecutors are white men; 1.8% (45) are women of color, a group that represents 20% of the U.S. population. These pioneering women have faced hostility from public officials and the public as well as violent threats in part because of their gender and race, what some call “misogynoir.”
“It’s, not about me, it’s about what I represent to a system that has … disproportionately impacted communities of color for far too long,” said Mosby. She created a “Sisters Circle,” a supportive group for women of color leading criminal justice agencies, which includes 11 other black women prosecutors. Members include Suffolk County (MA) District Attorney Rachel Rollins, Bronx County (NY) District Attorney Darcel Clark, and Orange/Osceola (FL) State Attorney Aramis Ayala. In January, the group traveled to St. Louis to support Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner who was suing city leaders for a “racially motivated conspiracy.” Since the coronavirus outbreak, Mosby announced her office will stop prosecuting low-level offenses and has joined medical professionals, defense attorneys, and others in asking Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to release from prison certain older, medically infirm, and parole-eligible individuals.
Maryland County Rejects Expansion of Police into Middle Schools
Residents in Montgomery County, Maryland were divided over a proposal to add armed School Resource Officers (SROs) to middle schools. The proposal was ultimately defeated. Wealthy and diverse, Montgomery County is the state’s largest county and already has SROs positioned in its high schools and some middle schools. Parents with the local NAACP chapter and the Silver Spring Justice Coalition organized opposition to the expansion of SROs, requesting more data on SRO behavior. SROs in many places have been caught on camera assaulting youth of color, such as in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida, but County Councilmember Craig Rice, who is black, defended Montgomery’s SRO program and supported its expansion. “If you have evidence” of student abuse locally, Rice said, “please let me know. And if you don’t, please stop saying it.” Though African American students comprised 20% of the county’s public students during the 2017-2018 academic year, they comprised 60% of school-based arrests.
Black Women Receive Harshest Punishments in Prison
Incarcerated women, especially black women, are often punished more harshly than incarcerated men for minor violations of prison rules, according to a new report from the United States Commission on Civil Rights. The report, “Women in Prison: Seeking Justice behind Bars,” cited reporting from NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University which analyzed data from 15 states and conducted interviews at five prisons across the United States, finding that women were two to three times more likely to face discipline for minor violations of prison rules in comparison to men. The report noted that black women make up 40% of women in solitary confinement, but just 23% of the female prison population.
In general, women in prison face harsher punishments—such as placement in segregation, loss of privileges, and loss of credits reducing their sentences—for offenses such as disorderly behavior, while men often are similarly punished for violence. The report suggests that women in prison are more likely to suffer from trauma, mental health issues, and substance abuse in comparison to men, which signals the need for more evidence-based, trauma-informed discipline policies that help women avoid harsh consequences.
Alabama’s Diversion Programs Confronts Racial Wealth Gap
Alabama’s diversion programs are designed to help people with low-level offenses—most often those with substance use disorders—access treatment to avoid criminal convictions and incarceration. However, these programs often provide little relief to the state’s poorest residents, according to a report from Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice. The organization surveyed over 1,000 people who had incurred criminal justice fines and fees on how diversion programs affected their lives. Most of the survey’s respondents were poor, with 55% making less than $15,000 annually, and they reported that the median cost to participate in diversion programs was $1,600, in addition to fines and fees. The report found that eight in ten people in diversion programs skipped buying necessities like food or rent to cover program costs, and one in five in their sample had been rejected for diversion because they could not afford it.
The state’s racial wealth gap has created an imbalance in accumulated wealth between African Americans and whites, which makes it less likely that African Americans have the ability to participate in diversion programs. The report notes that in the current environment of deadly violence in Alabama prisons, diversion can be a lifesaver and “the likelihood that African American Alabamians are disproportionately excluded from them … demands attention and remediation.”