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Race & Justice News: Misunderstanding African American English in Court

March 04, 2019
Philadelphia court reporters regularly made errors in transcribing sentences that were spoken in African American English (AAE), South Carolina's civil asset forfeitures unevenly impact black men, and more in Race & Justice News.

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Misunderstanding African American English in Court

Philadelphia court reporters regularly made errors in transcribing sentences that were spoken in African American English (AAE), according to a forthcoming study in the journal Language that has been featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New York Times. For the study, “Testifying while Black,” Taylor Jones, Jessica Kalbfeld, Ryan Hancock, and Robin Clark tested 27 court reporters to see how they handled the distinctions in grammar and pronunciation of AAE speakers, which Jones explains is “a valid, coherent, rule-governed dialect that has more complicated grammar than standard classroom English in some respects.”

They found that although court reporters are certified as 95% accurate in their transcriptions, they were accurate for only 83% of the words, 60% of the sentences, and 33% of their paraphrases of AAE speakers. Black court reporters did not significantly outperform their white counterparts, perhaps because they distanced themselves from the speakers, frequently explaining that they “don’t speak like that.” These findings raise concerns about the quality of official records and, given that court reporters are the “best ears in the room,” raise questions about how often judges, jurors, and lawyers are misunderstanding African Americans in court, explained Temple law professor Jules Epstein. The study’s researchers argue that accuracy in black dialect should be addressed through training and testing in the court reporter certification process.

South Carolina’s Civil Asset Forfeitures Unevenly Impact Black Men

While black men comprise 13% of South Carolina’s population, they make up 65% of all people targeted in asset forfeitures, according to an investigation by the Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail. Law enforcement agencies in the state seized over $17 million in cash and property between 2014 and 2016, using a tool intended to combat crime by financially limiting criminal enterprises and allowing agencies to use the proceeds to combat illegal activities. However, one-fifth of people who had their assets seized in the state were not charged with a related crime and a similar proportion were not convicted. Over half the time that police seized cash, the amount was under $1,000, suggesting that they are not targeting major players in the drug trade. South Carolina’s seizures have left many people struggling to recover their money and property, a challenge since the burden of recovery is placed upon the individual and can result in cumbersome legal fees.

While 29 states have taken steps to reform their forfeiture processes, South Carolina has no oversight on what can be seized or how seized assets are spent. The U.S. Supreme Court recently unanimously ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “excessive fines” applies to state and local governments’ practice of civil asset forfeiture. Since all 50 states already have constitutional provisions prohibiting the imposition of excessive fines, this decision may bring more scrutiny. “Police and prosecutors will continue to engage in this kind of policing for profit unless and until legislatures no longer allow them to keep 100 percent of the proceeds to forfeitures,” said Wesley P. Hottot, who argued the Supreme Court case, adding: “judges at the end of the process have to evaluate if that’s really justice or not.”

Los Angeles Police Division Cuts Back on Vehicle Stops amid Report of Racial Bias

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times revealed that the Los Angeles Police Department’s Metropolitan Division stopped black drivers at a rate more than five times their share of the population. Following the report, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered Metro police to cut back on stops. “We have made our streets safer with fewer vehicle stops than in recent years, and we have to keep prioritizing what works to both stop crime and strengthen trust,” said Garcetti in a statement.

As a way to combat increased violent crime in the city, Garcetti announced in 2015 that the Metropolitan Division would double in size to target hot spots. The division increased traffic stops from 4,300 in 2014 to nearly 60,000 in 2018. Metro officers typically engage in pretextual stops, using violations such as a broken tail light as a starting point to question a driver and potentially search their car. In a city whose population is 9% black, the investigation found that nearly half of all drivers stopped were black. South Los Angeles, the area where Metro made most of its traffic stops, is only one-third African American. The effectiveness of the surge in Metro’s stops is difficult to assess as crime did not dip until 2018. Civil rights and community groups are calling for Metro to withdraw from South L.A.

Limitations in Proposals to Diversity Massachusetts State Police

“How do you improve diversity and equity at the Massachusetts State Police, where eight in 10 troopers are white men, no minorities hold high-ranking positions, and numerous discrimination complaints have been filed?” This, Matt Rocheleau of the Boston Globe explains, was the motivating question behind a special 17-person commission focused on hiring and promotions in the department. The commission’s recommendations, issued last December, include recruiting on a predictable basis rather than sporadically, loosening the policy against tattoos, and providing additional credit to bilingual applicants.

But many see these recommendations as inadequate. “This is yet another attempt to check a box,” wrote Lieutenant Lisa Butner, a commission member whose letter accompanied the final report, highlighting evidence that these reforms would not sufficiently change the department’s demographic makeup. She added: “Recommendations without mandates and changes to the existing laws will just allow the problem to continue.” She and another commissioner voted against the recommendations, and another abstained. Some critics advocated for establishing a cadet program and curbing hiring and promotion preferences for military veterans, which disproportionately favor white men.

Attorney General’s Views on Racial Disparities in Policing and Incarceration

Asked by Senator Cory Booker about statistics showing African Americans are more likely to be arrested for drug crimes even though they use drugs at the same rate as whites, William Barr—now confirmed as Attorney General—responded to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was unfamiliar with the data, reports “I have not studied the issue of implicit racial bias in our criminal justice system,” Barr wrote to the committee, adding: “Therefore, I have not become sufficiently familiar with the issue to say whether such bias exists.” “Ignorance aligned with power is one of the most dangerous forces in a free society,” Booker observed. Barr was confirmed in a 55-44 vote running largely along party lines, with support from three Democrats (Kyrsten Sinema, Doug Jones, and Joe Manchin) and opposition from one Republican (Rand Paul).

Barr previously served as attorney general during George H.W. Bush’s presidency and gained a reputation as a hardliner. He supported policies that contributed to sizeable increases in the nation’s level of imprisonment. Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, noted that policies enacted by Barr in the 1990s significantly impacted communities of color and “deprived countless persons of color of their liberty and dramatically limited their future potential,” reports NPR. In his 1993 memo, “The Case for More Incarceration,” Barr wrote that more incarceration would be beneficial to the safety of black communities. Barr has said that his views have evolved and he would bring a modernized approach to his future policies. During the confirmation hearing, he committed to fully implementing the First Step Act.

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