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Race & Justice News: School Districts Defund the Police

July 09, 2020
School districts across the nation defund the police, California disproportionately excludes Black and Latinx jurors, US protests for George Floyd spark global activism, and more in Race & Justice News.

Race and Justice News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

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California Prosecutors Disproportionately Exclude Black, Latinx Jurors

“Prosecutors continue to exercise peremptory challenges to remove African Americans and Latinx people from California juries for reasons that are explicitly or implicitly related to racial stereotypes,” according to a study by the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic, featured in the Los Angeles Times. In “Whitewashing the Jury Box: How California Perpetuates the Discriminatory Exclusion of Black and Latinx Jurors,” Elisabeth Semel and co-authors examine nearly 700 cases decided by the California Courts of Appeal from 2006 through 2018 involving objections to prosecutors’ peremptory challenges. These challenges allow attorneys to excuse prospective jurors without stating a reason and without the court’s approval. District attorneys used their strikes to remove Black jurors in 72% of these cases, Latinx jurors in 28% of cases, Asian-American jurors in 4% of cases, and white jurors in 1% of cases. Prosecutors justified these strikes based on the prospective juror’s demeanor, their relationship with someone who had been involved in the criminal justice system, and their expressions of distrust or perceptions of bias in law enforcement or the justice system.

In the last 30 years, the California Supreme Court has reviewed 142 cases to determine if they violated Batson v. Kentucky’s rejection of intentional race-based jury selection. They found a Batson violation only three times. Between 2006 and 2018, the appellate courts found error in just 18 out of 683 decisions. “Batson’s requirement that the objecting party prove intentional discrimination allows these biases to operate unchecked,” write the report authors. Rather than the California Supreme Court’s approach to form a “work group” to consider these issues, the authors recommend that the state legislature pursue a “drastic course correction” encompassing significant changes to the state’s Batson procedure.

North Carolina Supreme Court Upholds Pending Racial Justice Act Cases

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of two men on death row, allowing them and over 100 others to seek hearings to examine whether racial bias contributed to their death sentence, reports The Marshall Project. Passed in 2009 while Democrats controlled the state legislature, the Racial Justice Act gave individuals on death row the opportunity to have their sentences commuted to life without parole based on statistical evidence of racial bias in jury selection. Under Republican control, the General Assembly amended and eventually repealed the law in 2013.

Six individuals on death row who had either received or sought resentencing based on jury discrimination took their cases to the state Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of two, Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur. The prosecutor in Burke’s case called him a “big Black bull” during closing arguments while the prosecutor in Ramseur’s case rejected all qualified Black jurors to arrive at an all-white jury, according to their attorneys. The Charlotte Observer reports that Justice Anita Earls wrote in the court’s decision that applying the law’s repeal to pending cases violated Constitutional ex post facto standards, by applying a harsher penalty retroactively. “This could and should be a national model,” said Gretchen Engel, director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina.

Chicago Debt Collection Program Disproportionately Affects Black Residents

In Chicago, a tax refund intercept program that allows the city to collect unpaid tickets, court fees, and other debt by garnishing state tax refunds disproportionately impacts the city’s poor Black and Latino residents. An investigation by The Chicago Reporter and Type Investigations found that 80% of the $13.5 million collected by the city in 2018 was intercepted from residents in ZIP codes where the median household income falls below the city’s median household income of $55,000, and 90% of the funds were from residents living in predominantly non-white neighborhoods.

The program, started by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, continues during Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration despite her vow to stop penalizing poor residents as a way to raise revenue. “The system itself is not providing affordable ways for them to actually pay the debt. It’s just kind of a backdoor way of doing it, and it’s not helping that particular person who is struggling,” said Tracy Occomy Crowder, a senior organizer with Community Organizing and Family Issues. According to Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza: “The city should consider alternative methods of debt settlement for lower-income people to pay some of these fines, such as more flexible payment plans or other creative options.”


Early Releases from Illinois Prisons During Pandemic Exacerbate Racial Inequity

Although Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker has acknowledged the risk posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to those in the state’s crowded prisons, the Illinois Department of Corrections “is not actually releasing many people early, and, of those released, there are startling racial inequities,” according to an analysis by Chicago-based Restore Justice. The nearly 3,400 early releases between March 1 and June 4—in a system that began this period with 37,000 imprisoned people—represent an “anemic” response to the public health crisis. The study, covered by The Associated Press, finds that “in most weeks since February, fewer people were released than during the equivalent periods in 2019.”

In addition, the data revealed that whites have been released early from prison at a higher rate. Whites comprise 32% of Illinois’s prison population but accounted for 43% of early releases. Blacks and Latinos accounted for 54% and 13% of the state’s prison population, but accounted for only 45% and 10% of early releases, respectively.


School Districts Defund the Police

Starting in Minneapolis, where police officers killed George Floyd, school districts across the country are ending their relationship with police departments. School Resource Officers (SROs) are tasked with patrolling school grounds but disproportionately arrest students of color, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Explaining the decision to end the schools’ contract with the city police, Minneapolis school board chair Kim Ellison said, “Our students of color are treated differently in our schools, and that’s no longer acceptable to us.”

In Chicago, 16-year old Derrianna Ford attends a school with a full-time police officer and a school nurse who only works on Tuesdays. “Even if you hurt yourself, they’re calling the SRO,” said Ford. Chicago schools have a $33 million contract with the city’s police department. Of the nation’s three largest school districts—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—only Los Angeles has begun responding to calls to remove police from schools, a move supported by the teachers’ unions there and in Chicago. School districts in Portland, Seattle, Oakland, Charlottesville, Denver, San Francisco, and Prince George’s County (MD) are in the process of following Minneapolis’s lead and investing instead in social workers, counselors, and nurses. This is part of a broader movement around the country to scale back and reform policing.

Pittsburgh Suspends Predictive Policing Algorithm

Citing concerns about potential racial bias, Mayor Bill Peduto announced the suspension of a predictive algorithm developed by Carnegie Mellon University that the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police used to identify crime “hot spots.” The Pittsburgh Task Force on Public Algorithms, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security, commended the decision, criticizing the program’s lack of transparency and public engagement.

“‘Hot Spots’ may benefit from the aid of a social worker, service provider or outreach team, not traditional policing,” the mayor wrote to the task force. The task force said that it would also examine algorithms used in bail decisions and by the county’s Department of Human Services in child welfare decisions.


Police Killing of George Floyd Sparks Global Activism

As Americans took part in protests nationwide amidst the coronavirus pandemic to decry the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, people around the world also denounced racism and police brutality, reports the Los Angeles Times. In Australia, Floyd’s death drew comparisons to the 2015 death of David Dungay, an Aboriginal Australian who was killed in the custody of prison guards. Pleading for breath while placed face-down in handcuffs, he was incorrectly told, “If you can talk, you can breathe.”

Australia’s Aboriginal population say the racism and disparities they face in their country’s justice system parallels the experiences of African Americans in the United States. “What the U.S. protests do help with is to show that this is not just a problem in one country—it reaches across oceans and continents,” said Nerita Waight, co-chair of a legal aid group for Aboriginal Australians. Protests have also taken place in major European cities, such as Paris and London, where thousands of people took to the streets to rally against excessive use of force and racial profiling by police.

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