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Race & Justice News: Examining Racial Disparity in Exonerations

April 14, 2017

Black people represent almost half of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes, lawsuit charges Milwaukee police with racially biased stop-and-frisks, and more in the latest Race and Justice News.

Race & Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Racial Impact Legislation Clears New Jersey Assembly

The New Jersey Assembly has passed legislation (S-677, A-3677) to require racial impact statements for proposed criminal justice policies. Upon receiving concurrence from the Senate, the measure will then require Governor Chris Christie’s signature. New Jersey has the country’s highest rate of racial disparity in imprisonment, with African Americans imprisoned at 12 times the rate of whites. Though New Jersey has reduced its prison population by as much as 28% since 2000, there is still work to be done on persistent racial disparities.

Racial impact statements are used to proactively address how proposed sentencing legislation would impact racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. S-677 would require an analysis regarding such impacts on pretrial detention, sentencing, probation, or parole policies. A coalition of legal, civil rights, criminal justice, and faith-based organizations worked to build momentum in support of the legislation. If New Jersey passes S-677, it will become the fourth state to adopt racial impact statement legislation, along with Iowa, Connecticut, and Oregon.

Examining Racial Disparity in Exonerations

“There is no single explanation” for the racial disparity in exonerations, according to a recent report by the National Registry of Exonerations, covered by CNN. African Americans constituted 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations and were the great majority of more than 1,800 people exonerated as a group in 15 major police scandals. Samuel R. Gross, Maurice Possley, and Klara Stephens, authors of “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” identified the sources of disparity for the three most prevalent crimes in the Registry: murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes.

The authors explain that the large number of false black murder convictions stems from the high black murder rate, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and discrimination. In sexual assault cases, misidentification by white victims was the leading cause of the wrongful conviction of African Americans who were exonerated. For drug offenses, the high rate of stops, searches, and arrests among African Americans led to their high number of wrongful convictions. In addition, the authors note, “African Americans are also the main targets in a shocking series of scandals in which police officers systematically framed innocent defendants for drug crimes that never occurred.”

How Criminalization Impacts Black Women and Girls

A January report by the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice summarizes key points and recommendations from a meeting of survivors, scholars, and activists examining how criminalization impacts the lives of black women and girls. According to the report, titled “The Impact of Incarceration and Mandatory Minimums on Survivors,” roundtable participants emphasized how black women’s voices are rarely reflected in policy development, resulting in one-size-fits-all policies.

Participants noted that stereotypes of black female survivors as violent and invulnerable contribute to their being seen as “the perpetrator and aggressor when they stand up for themselves, regardless of the reality of their circumstances and the violence they face.”

Recommendations include developing culturally appropriate, trauma-informed responses for black female victims within and beyond the criminal justice system, addressing economic inequalities that prevent women who experience domestic violence from having real choices, and not criminalizing sexual trafficking victims who are under age 18.

Chicago: Racial Disparities in Federal Sting Operations and Local Policing

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is in the midst of a legal battle over potential racial bias in its selection of targets for “stash house sting” operations in Chicago, according to the Chicago Tribune. A team of lawyers led by the University of Chicago Law School is seeking to dismiss charges against more than 40 defendants charged with planning to rob a fictitious drug stash house set up by the authorities. A recently unsealed study by Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law School found that there was “a zero percent likelihood” that the racial disparity among ATF sting targets was produced at random. Some of these individuals also did not fit the description of being the most dangerous gun offenders that ATF sought to target.

This case is developing in the wake of the U.S. Department of Justice’s January 13th report finding that Chicago police regularly violated the civil rights of citizens, especially those who are African American or Latino. Reporters Jason Meisner and Annie Sweeney explain that this case “could put the Justice Department in the uncomfortable position of defending its own stash house prosecutions against allegations of racist practices while at the same time pushing Chicago police for reforms of similar accusations.”

Chicago is also grappling with racial disparities in its reduced number of street stops and increased number of bicycle citations, as well as with the high level at which African Americans and Latinos experience stops in which officers did not articulate a legal cause.

Ethnic Disparities in Oregon Vehicle Violations

Latino motorists in Oregon were more likely than white drivers to be charged with motor vehicle violations, according to Investigate West. The newspaper’s analysis, reviewed by university researchers, examined 13 years of court records. They found that even when controlling for the estimated impact of undocumented immigration, Latino residents are charged with driving without a license, the most common offense, at more than twice the rate of whites. Because Oregon does not require agencies to collect information about who they stop, accusations of racial profiling are hard to investigate.

Lawsuit Charges Milwaukee Police with Racially Biased Stop-and-Frisks

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin filed a lawsuit against the Milwaukee Police Department claiming that officers routinely perform illegal stop-and-frisks that primarily target blacks and Latinos, including searching their vehicles. The ACLU claims that such actions violate the constitutional requirement that police have “reasonable suspicion” that the person being searched is dangerous or has committed a crime.

Police Chief Edward Flynn denies the allegations, saying that the police have never used the practice of “stop-and-frisk.” “However,” he added, “traffic stops in high-crime areas have been proven to reduce the number of non-fatal shootings, robberies and motor vehicle thefts.” Mike Crivello, president of the Milwaukee Police Association, attributed the problem to Flynn’s emphasis on ”quantity of work over quality.” He stated: “It is unfortunate that the mandated quota-like demands of the chief of police, sanctioned by the mayor, has sown the seeds of distrust.” The ACLU’s lawsuit comes amidst a pending collaborative reform report from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the police department’s use of force, training, and policies.

Black and Disabled Students More Likely to Experience School Discipline

Black students and students with disabilities are suspended, expelled, arrested, and referred to police at rates disproportionately higher than white and non-disabled students, according to a recent investigation by the NBC News Investigative Unit. Using nationwide data collected by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2013-2014 school year, the analysis revealed that black students without a disability were 2.3 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement while at school than white students without a disability. Black students with disabilities were 2.8 times more likely to be arrested while at school than white students with disabilities.

“Certain kids get counseling,” said Illinois State Senator Toi Hutchinson. “Certain kids get wraparound services. Other kids get juvenile detention,” she noted. Hutchinson successfully introduced a bill in the legislature requiring the state Board of Education to make discipline data public and requiring districts to address significant disparities in discipline.

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