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Race & Justice News: Violent Rap Lyrics Are Not Confessions

April 12, 2019
Rappers explain that violent rap lyrics are not confessions to Supreme Court, LAPD plans to change its data-driven policing program, Maryland lawmakers allow Johns Hopkins University to create armed police, 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.

LAPD Plans to Change Data-Driven Policing Program

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore announced that his department would change a data-driven policing program during a public meeting in which over 100 protesters denounced its racial bias, the Los Angeles Times reports. An LAPD Inspector General report found officers used “inconsistent criteria” to compile listings of chronic offenders, 44% of the identified chronic offenders had either zero or one arrest for violent crimes, and the effectiveness of certain components of the program could not be determined. “Shut it down,” activists chanted, seeking to end reliance on skewed statistics to unfairly police blacks and Latinos. 

“This shows a larger policing problem,” said Rashida Richardson, director of policy research at New York University’s AI Now Institute and a co-author of a report examining data programs in troubled police departments. She added: “None of this is standardized. A lot of this system is one-sided.” Chief Moore’s recommendations in a recent five-page memo include ending the use of chronic offender lists whose use was suspended in August. 

Maryland Lawmakers Allow Johns Hopkins University to Create Armed Police Force

Armed police forces are increasingly common on university campuses and Johns Hopkins University recently overcame opposition from over 100 faculty as well as student groups to establish its own, reports the Associated Press. Chisom Okereke, president of the Black Student Union, worried that a weaponized force could tragically escalate confrontations between police and students of color. Hopkins political science professor Lester Spence expressed concern that the Hopkins force would “bleed out into surrounding areas,” to whose residents it was unaccountable. 

Calls for a police force picked up after a number of robberies in late 2017. Although constituent objections contributed to lawmakers choosing not to endorse an armed university police force last year, both chambers of the Democratically-controlled General Assembly recently approved an armed Hopkins police force. Supporters of the force included Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, and Hopkins alumnus and donor Michael Bloomberg. Opponents including state Sen. Mary Washington, residents near the university’s campuses, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, faculty members, and Students Against Private Police. 

Rappers Explain to Supreme Court: Violent Rap Lyrics Are Not Confessions

“No other art form, fictional or otherwise, is targeted as pervasively in court as rap is, even though other genres have long traditions of violence,” wrote a group of rap artists, scholars, and music industry representatives including Killer Mike, Erik Nielson, Chance the Rapper, and 21 Savage in a brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. The amici curiae brief supported an appeal from Pittsburgh rapper Mayhem Mal (Jamal Knox) who received a two-year prison sentence for threatening police officers in a song. 

“Outlaw country music is given much more poetic license than gangster rap, and I listen to both,” Killer Mike said in an interview. The brief’s authors argue that courts are more likely to treat statements in rap music as a true threat of violence not protected by the First Amendment because of the genre’s “close association with the black men who historically have created it.” R. Stanton Jones, one of Knox’s lawyers, said that judges and jurors are especially likely to treat the lyrics of lesser-known rappers as autobiographical.

African Americans Experience Exclusions from Medical Marijuana in the South

As efforts to legalize marijuana for medical use ramp up in the South, African American legalization advocates have expressed concerns about unequal access to the drug and underrepresentation in the medical cannabis industry, Pew Stateline reports. Medical marijuana laws usually note which conditions the drug can cover, but the only southern states that have legalized medical cannabis exclude sickle cell anemia—a painful disease that disproportionately affects African Americans. 

African American advocates also anticipate that legalization in the South won’t provide equitable economic opportunities for their communities. While states like California have created programs that promote diversity among the state’s cannabis entrepreneurs, southern advocates have yet to see similar programs. African American advocates also believe that harsh policies set by the “War on Drugs” create an additional exclusionary barrier. Roz McCarthy, founder of the Florida-based advocacy group Minorities for Medical Marijuana, said, “We’re trying to push lawmakers to understand that they have the ability and the power to ensure exclusionary practices don’t happen. Barriers are there. But the opportunity to reduce barriers is also there.”

Three-Quarters of Tennessee’s Juvenile Lifers Are African American Men

Outgoing Governor Bill Haslam’s (R-TN) commutation of Cyntoia Brown’s sentence led the Tennessean to review the 185 people in Tennessee who had been sentenced to life for crimes committed under age 18. Brown served 15 years in prison for killing a man who had picked her up for sex at age 16 when she was a teenage trafficking victim. Fourteen of the juvenile lifers the newspaper examined are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, while the remainder, like Brown, face at least 51 years of imprisonment before their first parole hearing.


Cyntoia Brown’s life sentence was commuted earlier this year.

Cyntoia Brown’s life sentence was commuted earlier this year.

The review found that three-quarters of Tennessee’s juvenile lifers are African American men. Seven of them were just 14 years old at the time of their crime. Many experienced years of physical and emotional abuse prior to their crime, a pattern which The Sentencing Project’s Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis have described in their book The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences. Haslam, who issued commutations in at least two other homicide cases, said he hoped “serious consideration of additional reforms will continue, especially with respect to the sentencing of juveniles.”

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