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Race & Justice News: Racial Disparity in Florida’s Seatbelt Citations

February 23, 2016
Racial disparity in Florida's seatbelt citations, Big Lots and Marshalls agree to ban the box in New York, and more in our latest Race & Justice News.

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Racial Disparity in Florida’s Seatbelt Citations

Black motorists in Florida are stopped and ticketed for seatbelt violations nearly twice as often as their white counterparts statewide, and up to four times as often in certain counties, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union. The study, featured in The Guardian, is based on the most recent seatbelt citation data produced since the 2005 Florida Safety Belt Law was enacted. The ACLU explains that while black motorists tend to wear seatbelts slightly less often than whites, this difference does not explain the substantial racial disparity in seatbelt ticketing. Black motorists’ higher rate of stops and tickets expose them to a disproportionate financial burden and risk of experiencing police use of force.

In response to these findings, the ACLU is asking for an investigation by the Florida Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights. The organization is also calling for the promotion of fair and bias-free policing and for legislation that would penalize agencies that fail to collect and report data.

San Francisco Police Department Implements Reforms to Root out Intolerance

The U.S. Department of Justice will conduct a “comprehensive review” of the San Francisco Police Department in the wake of the recent high-profile police shooting of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man. The review also comes shortly after the emergence of racist and homophobic text messages exchanged among several city police officers. Both San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr requested the review, which will focus on use-of-force practices and racial disparities in how officers treat suspects and community members.

Chief Suhr has already begun implementing changes to the department, including a “Not on My Watch” campaign to encourage police officers to report colleagues displaying racist and homophobic behaviors. He also recently instructed the department to put more of an emphasis on de-escalation during firearms training, and is requiring officers to file a use-of-force report whenever they point their gun at a person.

Racial Diversity and Students’ Perceptions of Injustice

In Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice, Carla Shedd examines the impact of police and physical surveillance on the school experience from the perspective of students themselves. Shedd, assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, used quantitative and qualitative research to study four Chicago-area public high schools between 2001 and 2010. One of her more surprising findings is that students in schools with the least amount of diversity – where nearly all students are youth of color – were not as aware of the injustices around them as students in more diverse schools. She notes that, unlike some conclusions that community composition is the critical predictor, “the racial composition of a school’s student body overwhelmingly shapes students perceptions and experiences.”

Unequal City describes the schools’ systems of physical and personal surveillance in vivid detail, noting the differences across the four schools. Overall, Shedd concludes that heavy police and surveillance presence creates a feeling that the school space is “out of control,” a setup that is hardly conducive to learning, but instead acquaints youth early on with images and experiences similar to prison.

Big Lots and Marshalls Agree to Ban the Box in New York

New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently announced settlements with two major national retailers, Big Lot Stores and Marshalls, who had been violating Buffalo’s “ban the box” law. Buffalo’s law prohibits companies from asking job applicants about their criminal history on their initial employment applications. The companies will pay a combined $195,000 in penalties and agreed to “ban the box” in their nearly 140 stores statewide. In addition, Marshalls agreed to actively recruit applicants with criminal histories through an organization that specializes in job training for formerly incarcerated individuals.

“The impact of conviction-based discrimination is not evenly felt across all communities. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and Hispanic men are 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men,” wrote Schneiderman. These recent settlements “put all employers on notice that they cannot slam the door on job seekers just because of their past conduct. Everyone deserves a fair shot and a second chance.”

Florida’s Capital Sentencing Influenced by Race, Gender, and Geography

The great inequities within Florida’s administration of the death penalty call into question the fairness of the state’s use of capital punishment, according to a new report by University of North Carolina political science professor Frank Baumgartner. The study, featured in Florida Politics, examined all 89 executions from 1976 to 2014. During this period, nearly three quarters of all executions were for crimes involving white victims, considerably higher than the 56% white proportion of homicide victims. Female victims were similarly over-represented in cases that led to executions. And while most executions of black individuals were for homicides involving white victims, no white Floridian has ever been executed for a killing a black victim.

Baumgartner also found that just six out of Florida’s 67 counties were responsible for more than half of the state’s executions, while 36 counties have never carried out an execution. The Supreme Court recently found Florida’s use of the death penalty to be unconstitutional because it permitted judges, rather than juries, to find the facts necessary to sentence a defendant to death. Now that Florida must restructure its capital punishment procedures, its allowance of a non-unanimous jury to sentence a defendant to death is also under scrutiny.

Addressing Implicit Racial Bias During Jury Selection

In “A New Approach to Voir Dire on Racial Bias,” published in UC Irvine Law Review, Cynthia Lee argues that attorneys can strive for an impartial jury by calling attention to implicit bias through open-ended questions during jury selection. Lee, professor at George Washington University Law School, challenges the widely accepted view that jurors would be offended by a question about racial bias and would thus be unlikely to admit to a bias even if it existed. While close-ended questions promote simple yes or no answers that are more often politically correct than honest, Lee argues that open-ended questions – such as asking for reactions to the concept of implicit bias – allow jurors the opportunity to think, reflect, and realize if they would be able to overcome their implicit biases.

Lee’s argument is based on social scientific research demonstrating a reduction of bias in white jurors if attention is called to racial bias. She emphasizes that jurors should be sensitized to racial bias, not just simply to race or to the racial differences in the prison population.

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