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Race & Justice News: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

October 21, 2015
Read about black women and convict labor in the south, where police don't mirror communities and how to change that, and more in our latest Race & Justice News.

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Latinos Underrepresented Among California State Prosecutors

According to a report by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, California is “stuck in the 1970s” when it comes to the demographics of the state’s prosecutors. Whites comprise almost 38% of the state’s population but nearly 70% of its prosecutors. The researchers explain that “the last time 70% of Californians were white was in 1977.” Latinos, on the other hand, constitute almost 39% of the state’s population but represent only 9% of state prosecutors. African Americans and Asians, the report notes, are ​fairly ​well represented among California prosecutors relative to their share of the state’s population.

The researchers note that the “pipeline problem,” which is the underrepresentation of minorities throughout the legal profession, is the most important obstacle in increasing workforce diversity. They conclude that more research is needed to understand the impact of Latino prosecutorial underrepresentation on Latino defendants, in particular, now that Latinos have surpassed whites as California’s largest ethnic group.

Where Police Don’t Mirror Communities and How to Change That

While people of color remain underrepresented, to varying degrees, in nearly all law enforcement agencies serving at least 100,000 residents, police departments are least likely to reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of communities that have experienced major demographic shifts. Writing in Governing, Mike Maciag reports that practitioners contend police diversity is important because a racial/ethnic gap between a department and its community erodes trust and poses language and cultural barriers. Maciag notes though: “Research examining effects of police demographics on officer-involved shootings and use of force is mixed.”

To improve diversity, departments should set measurable recruiting goals and develop a strategic plan to reach these goals, such as by placing recruiting centers in communities of color and building relationships with police advisory boards. Departments should also have proper training and protocols in place, and mechanisms for addressing misconduct. “Agencies enjoying good reputations in the law enforcement profession and in their communities also benefit from larger, more diverse applicant pools.”

Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South

In Chained in Silence: Black Women and Convict Labor in the New South, Talitha LeFlouria recounts the underexplored history of incarcerated black women in Georgia’s convict leasing and chain gang systems in the post-emancipation South. Unlike neighboring states that exclusively used incarcerated women for domestic roles, Georgia’s incarcerated female population was decisively integrated into the male workforce and black women became a counterpart in the building of the New South (1865-1920). “Their presence in convict leasing and chain gang systems of Georgia helped modernize the postbellum South by creating a new and dynamic set of occupational burdens and competencies for black women that were untested in the free labor market.”

LeFlouria’s book describes the socioeconomic conditions (such as extreme poverty and sexual and/or physical abuse by a family member) in Georgia that contributed to many black women committing acts of violence, and highlights the demoralizing living conditions and inhumane violence that black women were forced to endure once incarcerated. In an interview with Ms., LeFlouria notes: “This book gives us a historical reference point to better understand black women’s travails against the carceral state today.”

African Americans’ Role in the Creation of Mass Incarceration

In Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment, Michael Javen Fortner highlights the active role that African Americans played in the creation of mass incarceration, focusing in particular on drug policy formation in New York State. He argues that during the late 1960s to early 1970s, New York’s black community shifted from seeking reform on economic and racial inequality to urging heightened policing to avert the criminal brutality plaguing hard-working black residents. New York’s Rockefeller drug laws were, according to Fortner, the greatest legislative victory for crime-concerned black leaders and working- and middle-class African Americans.

Fortner’s book has been critiqued in The New York Times and the Boston Review, and featured in The New Yorker. In a recent op-ed, the author argues: “As we rightly rethink punishment, it would be a mistake to ignore crime, both its origins and its effects.… In the short run, we need the police. We need aggressive law enforcement methods that do not harass or brutalize the innocent.”

Overrepresentation of Indigenous People in Prison in Australia and Canada

The youth incarceration rate for Australia’s Indigenous population has reached its highest point in two decades, according to a new Amnesty International report featured in the Guardian. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth make up 5% of the Australian population of 10 to 17-year-olds, but make up more than half of those in detention. The report provides 16 recommendations on how the Australian government can reduce youth incarceration around the country and meet the international standards set forth by The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Australia has signed and ratified.

In Canada, Aboriginal women now make up over 35% of the female prison population, even though they represent just 4% of the general population. According to CBC News, Howard Sapers, the outgoing Correctional Investigator of Canada, explained that Aboriginal prisoners are also more likely than their counterparts to be assigned to higher security levels, to spend more time in segregation, and to have their parole supervision revoked. Dawn Harvard, interim president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, attributes this over-representation to racism and poverty.

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