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Race & Justice News: Native Americans in the Justice System

March 28, 2016
The overrepresentation of Native Americans in the criminal justice system, racial disparities in marijuana possession outcomes, and more in our 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.

Overrepresentation of Native Americans in the Justice System

The overrepresentation of Native Americans in the criminal justice system is a nationally underreported story, according to a recent article in Nieman Reports. Native Americans have been admitted to prison at over four times the rate for whites, according to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency​.​ A 2014 report by the Centers for Disease Control found that police kill Native Americans at almost the same rate as African Americans. Through this underreporting, “news media are communicating that Native Americans are not a vital part of the national conversation on race,” says researcher Christopher Josey.

new report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center reveals that Native Americans make up just seven percent of Montana’s population, yet account for nearly 20% of arrests. Montana’s sentencing commission will reconvene this summer to analyze successful prison diversion efforts by other states, in order to reduce both racial disparities and the prison population.

Indigenous Canadians Imprisoned at Alarming Rate

Large racial disparities exist at every level of Canada’s criminal justice system according to an investigation in Maclean’s. Canada’s Indigenous incarceration rate is 10 times higher than its non-Indigenous rate. In comparison, the U.S. incarceration rate for blacks is about six times the rate for whites.

Reporter Nancy Macdonald adds that “while admissions of white adults to Canadian prisons declined through the last decade, Indigenous incarceration rates were surging.” She attributes this to punitive reforms during Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration, disparities in discretionary police stops, and the challenges of posting bail.

Racial Disparities in Marijuana Possession Outcomes in Charlotte, North Carolina

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg police encounter someone possessing less than half an ounce of marijuana, officers can either make an arrest or issue a citation. A Charlotte Observer review of police records found in these situations, blacks are arrested nearly three times as often as whites. This disparity is problematic in part because arrests are now more easily discoverable on the Internet, which impacts employment, education and housing prospects.

marijuana arrests

Reporter Steve Harrison shows that while Charlotte police have reduced these arrests since 2012, racial disparities have increased. In a written response, Chief Kerr Putney stated “disproportionality does not always equate to discrimination.” Experts explain that the disparity may stem from both police strategy – such as apprehending suspected sellers – and bias.

Limited Justice for Black Murder Victims in Indianapolis, Indiana

Indianapolis police last year solved cases involving black homicide victims at a rate 43% lower than for white victims, according to an IndyStar analysis of police data. In 2015, the city’s clearance rate was 87% for white victims and 50% for black victims. Reporter Jill Disis explains that this gap has nearly tripled over the last five years.

Disis considers a few likely explanations. In high crime neighborhoods, witnesses with criminal records may fear they will be arrested themselves if they talk to police. Tensions between people of color and police are also a likely contributor to the observed disparity. A potential solution would involve increased police resources for foot patrol and investigation as well as efforts to increase community confidence in law enforcement.

Falling Back: Incarceration and Transitions to Adulthood Among Urban Youth

For three years, Jamie J. Fader tracked 15 black and Latino Philadelphia teens during and after their placement in a rural Pennsylvania reform school. To the young men, the book’s title, Falling Back, referred to their becoming productive citizens; to Fader, it represented their regression into destructive family, social, and economic habits and environments. ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬Fader, assistant professor of criminal justice at University at Albany, SUNY, describes how after returning home, the young men had difficulty finding stable relationships and employment.

“Sincere,” one of the young men profiled in the book, explained that he dabbled in the drug trade while looking for legitimate work. “I didn’t do it like last time, I was just doin’ small stuff so I won’t get caught or in trouble.” He was eventually arrested. Like Sincere, all but two of the 15 young men would reoffend in the two years following their release, and seven would again be incarcerated. The book contrasts the young men’s positive intentions to mature with the limited opportunities provided by their neighborhoods.

Racial Disparities in School Suspensions Drive Differences in Academic Outcomes

In “The Punishment Gap: School Suspension and Racial Disparities in Achievement,” Edward W. Morris and Brea L. Perry show that suspending students not only hinders individual academic achievement but also explains a significant portion of the racial achievement gap. Schools with high proportions of students of color are more likely to use such exclusionary discipline practices.

Published in Social Problems, the study examined three years worth of data from 16,000 students in grades six through 10 attending 17 different schools. The researchers found that these harsh discipline practices explain roughly 20% of the racial achievement gap. Along with Morris and Perry’s prior research showing the negative impact of harsh discipline even on those students who remain in class, these findings underscore the need for school districts to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline.

Meta-Analysis Finds Racial/Ethnic Discrimination in Prosecution

In “Racial/Ethnic Discrimination and Prosecution: A Meta-Analysis,” JawJeong Wu weighs conflicting views on unwarranted racial or ethnic disparities in prosecution. Based on a meta-analysis of 26 studies concerning federal and state prosecutions from 1960 to 2012, Wu affirms the view that these disparities exist in prosecution and concludes that prior qualitative reviews did not “account for the influence resulting from such factors as sample size and standard error.”

Published in Criminal Justice and Behavior, Wu’s analysis reveals that race-based prosecutorial discrepancies vary by the region studied, number of jurisdictions studied, and type of prosecutorial decision making. The greatest racial or ethnic disparity is found within the initial prosecutorial screening phase in Southern jurisdictions.

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