Skip to main content

Race & Justice News: Whose Lives Matter?

November 18, 2020
Oregon ballot measure tackles racial disparities in drug possession enforcement, San Francisco will respond to behavioral crisis calls without police, Black Kansas City residents cite distrust of police as contributor to gun violence, 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.


Assessing How California Sentencing Reforms Have Impacted Racial Disparities

By reclassifying some nonviolent offenses from potential felonies to misdemeanors, California’s Proposition 47 helped to reduce both the state’s overall level of arrests, jail bookings, and incarceration while also reducing attendant racial disparities, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Latinx-white disparities, which were far smaller than Black-white disparities, remained largely unchanged. Authors Magnus Lofstrom, Brandon Martin, and Steven Raphael, who explored the impact of Prop 47 by comparing the twelve month periods before and after its passage in November 2014, have also published a related analysis Criminology and Public Policy.

These findings are sensitive to the method used to measure changing racial disparity. For example, PPIC finds that Black-white imprisonment rates differed by 4.5 percentage points in 2007 (5.5% for Blacks versus 1.0% for whites) and by 2.8 percentage points in 2017 (3.5%  versus 0.7%, respectively). This change can be characterized as a 38% decline in the difference between the rates, or as a decline of 9% in the ratio of Black/white rates (5.5 versus 5). A study in Criminal Justice and Behavior by Aaron Gottlieb and colleagues, using a different data source and covering 2000 to 2015, found that while California’s reforms reduced incarceration rates, they increased Latinx-white disparities and may have also increased Black-white disparities.

Oregon Ballot Measure Will Tackle Racial Disparities in Drug Possession Enforcement

Oregon voters approved Ballot Measure 110, decriminalizing possession of small quantities of all drugs and applying the state’s marijuana tax revenues to expand treatment and recovery services. Nearly 9,000 people in Oregon are arrested annually for simple drug possession and these arrests disproportionately target the state’s Black and Indigenous populations. An analysis by the state’s Criminal Justice Commission, reported in The Skanner News, found that the reform would nearly eliminate Black-white and Indigenous-white disparities in drug possession arrests and convictions.

Oregon’s was one of several successful ballot measures nationwide to decriminalize drugs. Voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota legalized recreational marijuana use, those in Mississippi legalized some medical marijuana use, and Washington DC voters deprioritized enforcement of psilocybin production and possession. Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a major backer of Oregon’s reform, explained that her organization is working to “decriminalize drugs in all 50 states.”


Media Cover Chicago’s White Homicide Victims With More Frequency and Nuance

Homicide victims were more likely to make the news if they were white or killed in majority-white neighborhoods, according to a Sociology of Race and Ethnicity study by Kailey White, Forrest Stuart, and Shannon L. Morrissey. In “Whose Lives Matter? Race, Space, and the Devaluation of Homicide Victims in Minority Communities,” the researchers reviewed over 2,000 local, national, and international news articles written about Chicago’s 762 homicide victims in 2016. They found that homicide victims in predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods were also treated as less newsworthy by another measure, what the authors call the “lens of complex personhood.”

The study found that reports of homicides in predominantly white neighborhoods were over 2.5 times as likely as those in predominantly Black neighborhoods to include a victim’s family and community roles, alongside other humanizing language. White victims were over twice as likely as Black and Latinx victims to be discussed as complex persons. Speaking with The Marshall Project, Morrissey noted that media coverage often “reinforc[es] this idea that certain neighborhoods are inherently dangerous and unsafe, and others are made up of cousins and sons and mothers.”


Racial Disparities in North Carolina Life-Without-Parole Sentencing

North Carolina’s life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences appear to be driven by local precedent and preferences for severe sentences in cases involving white victims, according to a new study by Brandon L. Garrett and colleagues. The North Carolina Law Review study examines the growth in North Carolina’s LWOP sentences between 1995 and 2017 (1,627 total), during a period in which murder rates declined. The study finds that LWOP sentences declined as the number of Black homicide victims increased in a given county, but not when the number of white homicides increased, suggesting that “white lives matter in our criminal courts.” Writing in Raleigh’s News and Observer, Garrett and co-author Travis Seale-Carlisle argue that counties tend to develop a “muscle memory” for sentencing over time, leading to a preference for LWOP sentences and compounding existing racial disparities in counties with more white victims.

“Life without parole is one of the most egregious forms of racial discrimination and inequality in our criminal justice system,” said North Carolina State Representative Marcia Morey of Durham, during a virtual news conference on the study. As LWOP sentences appear to be shaped by racial bias and local sentencing preferences, Garrett and Seale-Carlisle recommend that policymakers look to reform sentencing laws to provide “second look” considerations for people serving severe sentences.


San Francisco to Respond to Behavioral Crisis Calls Without Police

San Francisco will begin responding to nonviolent, noncriminal behavioral health crisis calls with teams from the city’s fire and health departments, reports National Public Radio. The reform is part of Mayor London Breed’s efforts to rethink public safety in the aftermath of nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of the police. Mother Jones reports that other jurisdictions around the country also voted to improve non-police responses to social problems and to strengthen police accountability.

San Francisco officials, such as Fire Department Captain Simon Pang, argue that the new teams of unarmed paramedics and mental health practitioners will respond to mental health and substance use crisis calls more effectively than traditional law enforcement. The city received close to 17,000 such calls in 2019, and only 132 of those calls were coded as potentially violent. The reform is modelled after a successful program in Eugene, OR (called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS) that has been shown to reduce violence through intervention and de-escalation, while increasing access to mental health and social services. Portland, OR and Denver have also pursued smaller pilot programs based on Eugene’s model. San Francisco’s program will be the largest of its kind in the country.

Black Kansas City Residents Cite Distrust of Police as Contributor to Gun Violence

Barbara J.K. Johnson asked the police in Kansas City, Missouri to install a camera on her street to tackle violence, but they never did. After she called them to report suspicious activity, officers confronted her in her backyard at gunpoint. “She vowed never to call the police again,” write Humera Lodhi and Jelani Gibson for The Kansas City Star. Black Kansas City residents told the reporters that the high rate of gun violence in their neighborhoods is connected to a lack of trust in the city’s police department.

The Star’s Missouri Gun Violence Project, in partnership with Report for America and the Missouri Foundation for Health, found that 75% of homicide victims in the city are Black, despite less than 30% of the residents being Black. In addition, nearly 80% of police misconduct claims were in mostly Black neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence. The Giffords Law Center researched how unequal treatment from law enforcement impacts the rate of gun violence in predominantly Black neighborhoods. “Without that trust [in police], informal justice spikes,” said Ari Freilich, state policy director at the Giffords Center. In the past five years, Kansas City police’s homicide clearance rate has been under 50%.

Related Posts
April 11, 2022

#SecondChanceMonth: Unlock the Vote

Honoring April as Second Chance Month gives us an opportunity to check in on developments in voting rights and expanding the franchise to incarcerated voters. The Sentencing Project is working regularly with state and local campaigns to expand voting rights to justice impacted voters.
April 05, 2022

Letter Opposing the PROTECT Act of 2022

The PROTECT Act of 2022 would have far-reaching implications for eroding fairness and justice, including the potential to usher in a new era of mandatory minimums.