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Race & Justice News: The Limits of Focusing on Racial Disparity

January 20, 2016
Youth of color in the changing juvenile justice system, the limits of focusing on racial disparity, and more in our latest Race & 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.

Youth of Color in the Changing Juvenile Justice System

In A Return to Justice: Rethinking Our Approach to Juveniles in the System, Ashley Nellis, Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project, traces the trajectory of the juvenile justice system since its inception over a century ago. First established with the recognition that children are less mature than adults, and that the processes in the juvenile system ought to shield youth from stigma and collateral consequences, the system’s designers favored a rehabilitative approach. Yet youth of color, especially African Americans, were poorly treated in the early system: often housed separately from whites, subjected to grueling hard labor, and detained for longer periods than their white counterparts.

While the federal government and states sought to improve the system in the second half of the 20th century, the “tough on crime” era beginning in the 1970s eroded the vision of juvenile justice itself. With young black males as the public face of crime, jurisdictions increasingly limited consideration of reduced culpability and adopted adult sentencing models instead. As Nellis describes in an interview with the Crime Report, racially charged predictions of rising juvenile violence – such as the myth of the so-called “superpredators” – were taken as fact.

In recent years, reforms advanced by policymakers, advocacy organizations, and foundations have achieved a sharp reduction in the number of incarcerated juveniles as well as a growing awareness that children are different. Despite these improvements, racial disparities are as pronounced as ever: “We have a long way to go in coming to value the life of young black teens.”

The Limits of Focusing on Racial Disparity

“The carceral state is an abomination that has disproportionately harmed African Americans but has also harmed many other disadvantaged groups in the United States,” writes Marie Gottschalk in Prison Legal News. Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, Gottschalk recently published her second book on mass incarceration: Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics.

In the essay and book, Gottschalk argues that while African Americans “have been and remain key targets of the criminal justice system,” the focus on racial disparities overshadows the excessively high rates of incarceration for poor whites, women, Latinos, and immigrants as well.“The United States would still have an incarceration crisis even if it were locking up African Americans at ‘only’ the rate at which whites in the United States are currently incarcerated – or if it were not locking up any African Americans at all.” Moreover, she argues, African Americans are harmed more by the overall severity of sentences than by their disparities.

Gottschalk critiques the “3 R’s” approach to penal reform – reentry, justice reinvestment, and recidivism – as too narrow and calls instead for radically reducing prison and jail admissions and lengths of stay, improving prison conditions, and ending discrimination against those with criminal records. She notes that while it is not necessary to tackle the root causes of crime to abolish the carceral state, we must fix structural problems to reduce the urban violence that disproportionately affects low-income African Americans. In her book, she also examines how “African Americans bolstered and challenged the carceral state at key moments and in complex ways.” Gottschalk’s essays have also appeared in publications including The Jacobin, the Boston Review, and in The Atlantic.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities in New Jersey’s Low-Level Offense Arrests

A new report by the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union finds that African Americans and Latinos were between three and 10 times more likely to be arrested for petty crimes than whites in four New Jersey cities, writes S.P. Sullivan for The report examines arrest data from 2005 to 2013 in the state’s second-largest city, Jersey City, as well as in New Brunswick, Elizabeth, and Millville for four minor offenses: marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, defiant trespass, and loitering.

rj news jersey arrests

“The human cost of these arrests,” report author Lynda Garcia explains, include the burden of court costs and fines; criminal records with long-term consequences; and the loss of income, housing, child custody, or immigration status. “In extreme cases, a confrontation with police over a low-level offense can escalate into an episode of violence.” The report recommends a state inquiry into racial disparity in arrests, reduced emphasis on arrests for minor offenses, independent police oversight, improved data collection, and other reforms.

Milwaukee Police Department Requests Justice Department Review

The U.S. Department of Justice recently agreed to review the Milwaukee Police Department and provide best practice recommendations, known as a collaborative reform initiative. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn announced his request of the federal review on the same day that federal prosecutors said they would not file civil rights charges against the former Milwaukee police officer who shot and killed Dontre Hamilton, a 31-year-old black man with a history of mental illness.

The voluntary collaborative review will not necessarily inoculate the police department from a future “pattern-or-practice” investigation, said Flynn. Police departments under a collaborative review are not legally required to implement any of the recommended changes, whereas a pattern-or-practice lawsuit can lead to years of federal oversight to make sure the department is in compliance.

Nationwide Racial Disparities in Drivers Killed by Police

Of the more than 100 people who were shot and killed by police after a traffic stop in 2015, 1 in 3 was black, reports Wesley Lowery in theWashington Post. Seven of these black victims were unarmed, including Walter Scott and Samuel DuBose. About half either fired a gun or brandished a weapon. Traffic stops were the context for 11% of all fatal police shootings, according to the Post’s new database.

The racial disparities in police-involved killings raise concerns about recent evidence, from the Justice Department and researchers including Charles Epp, showing that officers are more likely to pull over African American drivers. The Black Lives Matter movement’s calls to address these racial disparities have helped to increase demand for implicit bias training from police departments.

Rhode Island’s Overburdened and Racially Imbalanced Probation System

Rhode Island’s Justice Reinvention Working Group recently released recommendations to improve the state’s overburdened and racially imbalanced probation system. Rhode Island has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, but has the third highest probation rate. Blacks make up 5% of the state’s population and whites account for 81% – yet 13 out of every 100 black adults are in prison or on probation, while only two out of every 100 white adults are. This disproportionate punishment starts as early as elementary school with black students being six times more likely to be suspended than white students, and continues through adolescence with black teens being over nine times more likely to be arrested than white teens.

Critics say the state makes it easy to get probation over incarceration, but also makes it easy for probation to be revoked. Sixty percent of those sent to prison are sent for probation violations. The working group recommends raising the standard of proof for revocations and shortening the duration of probation sentences.

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