Race & Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
Racial Disparities in Sex Offender Registration
In “Punishing Sex: Sex Offenders and the Missing Punitive Turn in Sexuality Studies,” published in Law and Social Inquiry, Trevor Hoppe demonstrates that like the rest of the criminal justice system, sex offender registration across the country disproportionately affects black men. About two-thirds of the approximately 750,000 Americans who are registered sex offenders are white men. But using data made publicly available on state websites and by organizations such as Parents for Megan’s Law, Hoppe reveals that within this large and growing population, the sex offender registration rate for blacks is twice that of whites. He notes: “Roughly one out of every 119 black men living in the forty-nine states analyzed were registered sex offenders—nearly 1 percent of all black men.” While Hoppe does not address the degree to which these disparities are produced by differences in behavior or criminal justice processing, he notes that the growth in sex offender registration rates, which are frequently for life, is occurring despite modest reductions in the overall correctional population.
Department of Education Urges University Admissions to Move “Beyond the Box”
As part of the Obama Administration’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, the Department of Education has issued administrative guidance encouraging universities to re-evaluate their questions about criminal histories during the admissions process. The new resource guide, “Beyond the Box: Increasing Access to Higher Education to Justice-Involved Individuals,” recommends that schools forego or delay consideration of criminal justice involvement until after a preliminary admission decision has been made, ensure questions are narrowly tailored, provide admissions personnel with additional training, and give all students an opportunity to explain their records.
Noting that questions about criminal justice information disproportionately impact individuals of color, especially black males, the initiative is intended to reduce the “chilling effect” of early inquiries about criminal histories. U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. announced the recommendation at UCLA, part of the University of California system, which does not inquire about criminal justice histories in its admissions application.
Increased Marijuana Arrests for Students of Color Amidst Colorado Reforms
A new report from the Colorado Department of Public Safety, first reported by Buzzfeed, has found growing rates of marijuana arrests for youth of color amidst the liberalization of the state’s laws. Despite legalizing recreational marijuana use in 2012, marijuana possession and use are still illegal for Coloradans under 21. Yet between 2012 and 2014, arrests of white adolescents (aged 10–17) have fallen by 8%, while black adolescents’ arrests have actually increased by 58%, and Latino adolescents’ arrests have increased by 29%.
The resulting arrest rate for black youth, in particular, far exceeds the small racial disparity in self-reported rates of marijuana use in a 2013 survey by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Many arrests are taking place in schools by School Resource Officers.
Persistent Racial Disparities in Marijuana Enforcement in California
The Drug Policy Alliance and ACLU of California find that the Los Angeles and Fresno Police Departments exhibit persistent racial disparities in marijuana possession enforcement. Misdemeanor marijuana arrests have plummeted since 2011, when California reduced the penalty for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. But in the two subsequent years, despite evidence that whites consume marijuana at similar rates to blacks and Latinos, blacks were 3.6 to 4.0 times more likely than whites to be cited for marijuana possession infractions in these cities, and Latinos were 1.4 to 1.7 times more likely. In fact, the racial disparity in infraction citations “is worse than the [relative] rates at which black people were arrested for possession of marijuana prior to 2011, when possession was a misdemeanor offense.” These citations carry a fine of up to $100, plus fees. The study authors note that in November 2016, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act will give California voters a chance to eliminate these penalties.
Racial Disparities in Risk Assessment Software Used by Courts
ProPublica has examined racial bias in risk assessment software that courts use throughout the country to aid in determining everything from bond to sentencing. Julia Angwin and colleagues studied the accuracy and bias of one of the most widely used tools, Northpointe, Inc.’s “COMPAS.” The reporters examined how accurately risk scores assigned to more than 7,000 defendants in Broward County, Florida in 2013 and 2014 predicted future arrests. The algorithm correctly predicted a defendant’s likelihood of being arrested for a violent crime at a 20% success rate and the likelihood of being arrested for any type of crime at a 61% success rate—“somewhat more accurate than a coin flip.” The software also wrongly identified black defendants as high-risk for future crime at twice the rate of white defendants, while also mislabeling white defendants as low-risk more often than black defendants.
Due to the software’s proprietary nature, the public and defendants rarely have access to the calculations that convert the data into a raw score. Additionally, defendants usually do not have an opportunity to challenge the assessment of their risk of future crime. In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder called on the U. S. Sentencing Commission to study risk assessments due to their potential to exacerbate racial disparities. The Sentencing Commission has not yet taken action.
Reforms in St. Louis and Connecticut to Address the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Education leaders across the country are taking steps to keep kids away from the school-to-prison pipeline. The city of St. Louis’s Public Schools will ban out-of-school suspensions for students through second grade starting in the fall. A 2015 report from UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies identified Missouri as having the highest racial gap in the country when it came to suspending elementary students; the city of St. Louis had one of the state’s highest rates of suspension for black elementary students.
In Connecticut, Governor Dan Malloy signed a unanimously-approved bill to tighten the process that schools must follow to expel students and to guarantee a quality alternative education program for those who are expelled. The new legislation requires that parents receive notice that they have a right to appeal an expulsion, and to receive five days’ notice of that hearing. The State Board of Education had cautioned that, “Suspensions and expulsions [are] associated with higher likelihood of academic failure, school dropout, and involvement in the juvenile justice system.” The new law also prevents schools from referring truancy or violations of school rules to juvenile courts.