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Race & Justice News: DOJ​ Reflects on Civil Rights Division’s Policing Reforms

January 23, 2017
Department of Justice releases new report on the Civil Rights Division’s police reform work since the passage of the 1994 federal crime bill, investigation finds many police departments across the country do not reflect the diversity of their communities, and more in our latest Race & Justice News.

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Justice Department’s Report and Website on its Policing Reforms

Before the presidential transition, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report on the Civil Rights Division’s police reform work since the passage of the 1994 federal crime bill. The report describes pattern-or-practice investigations into violations of the Constitution or other federal laws, discusses reform agreements, reflects on how the present-day reform model has incorporated research and experience, and reviews the impact of reforms. In tandem with this report the DOJ also launched the interactive Police Reform Finder which allows users to search how reform agreements have addressed specific kinds of policing issues. Former Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta stated, “We hope stakeholders find our report and interactive tool useful in our collective efforts to advance constitutional policing, strengthen police-community trust and promote officer and public safety.”

Following the report’s release, the DOJ entered into a consent decree with the city of Baltimore based on its investigation following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. It did the same with Chicago, following its report and investigation after the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by the Chicago Police Department. The agency did not charge or clear the police officers involved in the 2014 death of Eric Garner in New York City before the presidential transition.

Improving the Representation of People of Color in Police Forces

In at least 50 cities in the United States with populations of more than 100,000, the percentage of black police officers is less than half of what blacks represent in that city’s population, according to a USA Today analysis of Census data. Hispanics are under-represented in even more cities: the percentage of Hispanic officers is less than half of the Hispanic share of the population in at least 100 cities. Between 2000 and 2010, all but a few cities with the widest disparities for blacks and Hispanics saw the gap remain the same or widen.

In Chicago, to attract more people of color to the police force, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is considering allowing candidates with minor criminal and drug convictions to join the ranks, reports The Chicago Sun-Times. City Council Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke stated, “We are not so much asking the department to lower [its] hiring standards as we are asking them to apply a greater standard of fairness.” This step echoes a recommendation from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s report on how law enforcement agencies can become more racially diverse.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed significant differences in the opinions of black and white officers. Black officers were more critical than their white counterparts regarding advances in racial equality and had a more favorable impression of the motives of demonstrators who have protested after deadly encounters between police and African Americans. But researchers have reached conflicting conclusions about whether diversifying police forces reduces violent police interactions with African Americans.

Charging for Justice in New Orleans

A recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice, covered by FiveThirtyEight, found that the cost associated with jailing people in New Orleans who cannot pay bail, fines, and fees exceeded the amount of revenue that the city generated from these charges. In 2015, New Orleans spent $6.4 million jailing people who could not pay bail, fines, and fees,but only collected $4.5 million from these sources, creating a deficit of $1.9 million. These individuals and their families also paid an additional $4.7 million to commercial bail bond agents, according to “Past Due: Examining the Costs and Consequences of Charging for Justice in New Orleans.”

Many of those detained due to their inability to pay financial costs are low-income black residents, some of whom are never convicted of a crime. Mathilde Laisne, Jon Wool, and Christian Henrichson, the report’s authors, view this as part of “an enormous transfer of wealth from some of the city’s poorest residents, the vast majority of whom are black, to city government and for-profit companies.” City officials have stated that they are working to reduce New Orleans’s jail population and reform its bail system, including reducing the amount of bail for low-risk defendants.

Foreseeing the Consequences of Criminal Justice Financial Obligations

The Harvard Kennedy School and the National Institute of Justice have produced a report examining the long-term and unintended consequences of “criminal justice financial obligations” (CJFOs): fines, forfeiture of property, court fees, supervision fees, and restitution. In “Shackled to Debt: Criminal Justice Financial Obligations and the Barriers to Re-entry They Create,” Karin D. Martin, Sandra Susan Smith, and Wendy Still write that CJFOs impose a heavy burden which can create perverse incentives for justice-involved individuals and undermine post-incarceration re-entry goals. The authors argue that the unfair and unjust administration of CJFOs, such as in Ferguson, Missouri, breeds “deep distrust of the criminal justice system, especially among the poor and people of color.”

The report’s recommendations include factoring in ability to pay when assessing CJFOs, implementing alternatives to monetary sanctions where appropriate, establishing independent commissions to evaluate the consequences of CJFOs, and relieving probation, parole, and police officers of the responsibility of collecting debt.

Criminal Justice Policy Contributes to the Educational Racial Achievement Gap

“The discriminatory incarceration of African American parents is an important cause of their children’s lowered performance,” write Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute in a new report. Based on a broad review of research in “Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes: Criminal Justice Policy is Education Policy,” the authors conclude that parental incarceration has cognitive and non-cognitive impacts known to affect children’s school performance.

Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to disengage from and drop out of school, develop learning disabilities, and have physical and mental health problems. Furthermore, such children are more likely to experience poverty, which adds another layer of stress in their lives. Consequently, the authors argue, “Criminal justice reform should be a policy priority for educators who are committed to improving the achievement of African American children.”

Lack of Data on Latinos in the Criminal Justice System

Few states report Latino ethnicity across major criminal justice measures, reports the Urban Institute. Using publicly accessible data, Sarah Eppler-Epstein, Annie Gurvis and Ryan King examined the degree to which states report counts of Latinos across five categories: prison population, prison population by offense, arrests, probation population, and parole population. They found that while 75% of states reported Latino ethnicity on at least one of the five categories, only 39% did so for two or more of the categories.

The researchers also found great variation in the quality of ethnicity data. Many states do not follow the current Census Bureau guidelines, which collect and report data on race and ethnicity separately, but also put them in combined categories such as “non-Hispanic white.” The report recommends that states should at least meet the current Census Bureau standards, allow individuals to self-report, and collect and report data at least one every two years. The authors note: “Without comprehensive data, policymakers, community members, and advocates cannot know how mass incarceration affects Latinos specifically and ethnic disparities cannot be accurately tracked.”

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