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Race & Justice News: Police Departments Reduce Low-Level Arrests

November 04, 2019
Report finds Los Angeles courts’ mandatory community service is “fundamentally coercive,” Philadelphia's African Americans are disproportionately stuck in probation trap, and more in Race & Justice News.

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Los Angeles Courts’ Mandatory Community Service is “Fundamentally Coercive”

Los Angeles courts’ mandatory community service sentences are “a euphemism for a fundamentally coercive system situated at the intersection of mass incarceration and economic inequality, with the most profound effects on communities of color,” according to a UCLA Labor Center report covered by The Guardian. In “Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles,” researchers found that Los Angeles County has required 100,000 people each year to undergo court-ordered, unpaid, and unprotected labor. Although they work alongside paid employees and perform identical tasks, court-ordered volunteers receive neither wage nor labor protections. 

The Labor Center’s analysis found that among a sample of 5,000 people who were ordered to perform community service in 2013, many struggled to complete their assigned work, with nearly one in five of those with criminal cases facing a probation revocation or a bench warrant for failure to complete court-ordered community service. The report concludes that “court-ordered community service does not preclude jail or debt, and it is always a troubling form of economic extraction that seizes labor.” Community service workers with traffic court cases, for whom race/ethnicity data were available, were 89% people of color.

Philadelphia’s African Americans Disproportionately Stuck in Probation Trap

Pennsylvania courts imposed probation as part of 70% of non-DUI sentences in 2018, according to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, with probation terms often exceeding three years and sometimes longer than a decade. In Philadelphia, where 36,000 people are on probation or parole, African Americans were on probation at a rate 54% higher than whites, report the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed and Dylan Purcell. Melamed and Purcell illustrate how probation “dictates where people can live, where they can work, the shape and scope of their aspirations,” and produces constant fear of incurring a violation. 

The growth in probation supervision has been a key pipeline for prison admissions—half of Pennsylvania’s prison admissions have resulted from probation or parole violations—with a majority of probation violations not involving a new crime. Even practitioners believe probation is overused: Helene Placey, executive director of the County Chief Adult Probation & Parole Officers Association of Pennsylvania, has stated that “For low-level, low-risk offenders we need to utilize sentencing options of ‘guilt without further penalty,’ fines, and restitution, as stand-alone sentences on a more regular basis.” 

Racial Profiling in Philadelphia and Los Angeles

Although Philadelphia police have been required to monitor racial disparities in pedestrian stops and frisks since 2011, last year they dramatically increased vehicle stops and searches, which disproportionately impact African Americans, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Samantha Melamed. Meanwhile their “hit rate”—the rate at which searches turn up contraband—declined to 12% in searches of cars driven by black or Latino drivers in 2019, compared to 38% in 2014.

Prompted by a Los Angeles Times investigation, the Los Angeles Police Department’s Metropolitan Division will drastically cut back on stopping and searching random vehicles in high-crime neighborhoods, a policy that overwhelmingly affected African American drivers. “Is the antidote or the treatment itself causing more harm to trust than whatever small or incremental reduction you may be seeing in violence?” said LAPD Chief Michel Moore. Metro division will focus on tracking down suspects of violent crimes and use strategies other than vehicle stops to address crime spikes. South-LA based Community Coalition and the ACLU have called for the Metro division to withdraw from South LA and for the LAPD to end pretextual stops, where officers pull drivers over for minor violations to look for more serious wrongdoing. The Los Angeles Times has reported that citywide, LAPD officers search black drivers four times as often as whites, and Latinos three times as often, despite finding contraband more frequently on searched white drivers. 

Major Police Departments Reduce Low-Level Arrests

Major police departments around the country are arresting fewer people for minor offenses, reports the Wall Street Journal. In New York City, misdemeanor arrests have been halved since peaking in 2010, with arrests rates of African Americans reaching their lowest point since 1990. A similar trend has also been observed in St. Louis, Missouri, where the arrest rate for black men fell by 80% from 2005 to 2017. In Durham, North Carolina, African Americans arrest rates fell by nearly 50% between 2006 and 2016.

While there is no general consensus on what factors have led to the decline, some researchers say it signals a fundamental shift in law enforcement toward focusing on more serious crimes. “We weren’t looking to make arrests,” said Jose L. Lopez, who saw arrests rates decline during his tenure as the police chief in Durham. “The job of a police officer is to guard and make the community safe. The job isn’t to put people in jail.” “There started to be a realization,” explains Christopher Fisher, Chief Strategy Officer at the Seattle Police Department, that locking people up for minor things was “often exacerbating the problem.” Despite this progress, nationwide arrests for marijuana possession have exceeded arrests for all violent crimes in recent years.

California Legislature Limits School Suspensions for Willful Defiance

A new law signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom aims to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by limiting school suspensions for activities like chewing gum, playing with a phone, tapping feet, napping, mouthing off or being out of uniform—all considered “willful defiance.” The Los Angeles Times notes that past law, similar to many other jurisdictions, only barred such suspensions for kindergarten through third grade. The new law, written by State Senator Nancy Skinner, extends protections through fifth grade permanently and through eighth grade for the next five years. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the United States, banned willful defiance suspensions for all grades in 2013, at a time when those suspensions comprised more than 20% of that district’s total.

The law aims to end the disproportionate pushout of students of color in California where African American students comprised 6% of all students yet received 17% of all suspensions in 2017 and 2018. Eugenia Plascencia, a ninth-grade teacher in San Fernando, said she tries to figure out the problems that lead to disruptive behavior: “I usually try to get to the bottom of, did something happen this morning?” Ruth Cusick, a staff attorney at Public Counsel, which advocated for the change in state law, noted: “The real work has to be focused on what tools and supports are needed for our schools to truly transform school climate.”

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