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Race & Justice News: Why Are 1.5 Million Black Men “Missing”?

May 18, 2015
Over one quarter of police officers are people of color, 1.5 million black men between the ages of 25-54 are missing from daily life due primarily to imprisonment and early deaths, 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.

Over one quarter of police officers are people of color

A new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that over one-quarter (27%) of full-time local police officers were people of color in 2013. The proportion has nearly doubled from 15% in 1987. Larger jurisdictions were more diverse than smaller ones: white officers comprised 53% of departments serving populations of 1,000,000 or more, but 84% of departments serving 2,499 or fewer people.

Minority representation among full-time sworn personnel in local police departments, 1987-2013

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

In 2013, 73% of all officers were white (vs. 63% of the U.S. population), 12% were black (vs. 13%), 12% were Hispanic (vs. 17%), 2% were Asian / Pacific Islander (vs. 5%), 0.6% were American Indian (vs. 1.2%), and 0.5% were two or more races (vs. 2.4%).

Connecticut study identifies racial disparities in traffic stops

A comprehensive study of Connecticut policing data has revealed significant racial and ethnic disparities in traffic stops, which may point to racial profiling by certain police departments or officers. In the yearlong study, researchers at the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP) at Central Connecticut State University analyzed 620,000 traffic stops and found that a small number of departments were responsible for the disparities. While disparities alone do not prove racial and ethnic bias, statistical analyses suggest bias may be the cause. For instance, drivers of color were more likely to be stopped during daylight hours, when their race and ethnicity were visible. Further analysis by The Hartford Courant shows that racial disparities persist after a vehicle is stopped: black and Hispanic drivers were 11-41% more likely to receive a ticket for the most common moving violations than white drivers stopped for the same actions.

In response, law enforcement representatives have expressed an openness to reform but skepticism of the analysis, proposing that the disparities might be caused by factors like equipment violations or more aggressive ticketing in cities with larger minority populations. Advocates point to the study’s conservative approach of not equating racial disparities with discrimination. Study authors call for further analysis of the root cause of these disparities in the interest of promoting meaningful dialogue between Connecticut police and the communities they serve.

Justice Department faces challenges in ensuring constitutional policing

Simone Weichselbaum of The Marshall Project examines the challenges facing the Department of Justice’s interventions in local police departments suspected of engaging in a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations. In cities such as Detroit and New Orleans, local officials have bemoaned the expenses of implementing reforms; elsewhere, officials have resisted reforms in federal court. “Then there is the challenge of making the policing reforms last,” writes Weichselbaum, explaining that the Justice Department has returned to cities like Cleveland and Miami, where it had previously instituted reforms. Justice Department officials have acknowledged that some of their earlier reform plans have fallen short because they did not select the right benchmarks, or they insufficiently monitored or enforced agreements. Published in Time, the article also describes the hard-won progress in Los Angeles and the partial success in New Jersey.

“Missing” black men due to high incarceration and mortality rates

One and a half million black men between the ages of 25-54 are missing from daily life due primarily to imprisonment and early deaths according to a recent analysis by The New York Times. For every 100 black women in this age group not incarcerated, there are only 83 black men, compared to an almost equivalent number of white women to white men. Incarceration accounts for 600,000 of the 1.5 million missing black men.

The analysis found that the largest proportion of missing men can be found in the South. In a letter to the editor, Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project argued that this is unsurprising given the South’s long-term low levels of social welfare spending and high incarceration rates. Countries that invest a greater proportion of their GDP on social welfare have lower levels of incarceration, and researchers have found similar patterns among U.S. states. As Mauer explained: “Higher rates of welfare spending pre-empt premature deaths by improving health outcomes and reduce the risk factors for violent crime. States that take a preventive approach to crime are generally less punitive as well.”

The Urban Institute notes that many black men appear to be “missing” because of the Census Bureau’s undercount of low-income populations. The researchers applaud the Times for highlighting the limited social and economic progress of black men, and agree their disappearance has far-reaching implications. For example, a recent study in Social Science and Medicine notes that in addition to felony disenfranchisement, premature deaths among African Americans have had a significant impact on the racial composition of the U.S. electorate. The study finds that between 1970 and 2004, many close state-level elections would likely have had different outcomes if blacks had a similar mortality rate as whites.

States suspend driver’s licenses over court-related debt

This year, California Senator Bob Hertzberg (D) introduced a bill that would make it easier to reinstate driver’s licenses after the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area reported that more than 17% of California adults have suspended licenses for failure to pay traffic fines and associated court fees. California uses license suspensions as a tool to collect unpaid traffic citation debt to fund government operations, including the courts. Suspensions stem not only from traffic tickets – which can range from speeding to failure to have proof of insurance – but also from non-traffic related offenses, such as littering.

The report, “Not Just a Ferguson Problem – How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California,” explains that a suspended license makes it significantly harder for people to get and keep jobs, creating even more of a challenge for them to pay their debt. The license suspension policy disproportionately affects people of color, who are more likely to be stopped for traffic infractions. The report recommends ending the use of license suspensions as a collection tool for citation-related debt, eliminating barriers to due process for low-income individuals, standardizing payment plans and reducing the financial burden of citation fines for low-income people based on ability to pay, and implementing an amnesty plan to provide relief to millions of Californians.

The New York Times reports that five of the 15 states with the largest prison populations have laws that suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic fines. States like Tennessee suspend licenses for unsatisfied debts stemming from any criminal case, including misdemeanors. In 2013, Washington state stopped suspending licenses for failure to pay non-moving violations (such as expired registrations), resulting in a 50% drop in suspensions, 500 fewer arrests for driving with a suspended license each month, and an estimated 4,500 saved hours of patrol officers’ time.

Virginia schools top the nation in sending students to law enforcement

Virginia schools are leading the nation in sending students to law enforcement agencies for disciplinary reasons, according to a recent analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education, the Center ranked states by their rate of student referrals from schools to law enforcement during the 2011-12 school year. The national rate of referrals was six students for every 1,000 students. Virginia had a rate of about 16 referrals for every 1,000 students, followed by Delaware with about 15, and Florida with more than 12. Nationwide, the Center found that children of color and special needs students were disproportionately referred to law enforcement agencies. Special needs students—children with a physical or learning disability—represent 14% of U.S. enrollment but made up 26% of students referred to law enforcement. Black students were 16% of U.S. enrollment, but accounted for 27% of students referred to law enforcement.

The Center says the volume of student referrals to law enforcement raises questions around which incidents require police or court intervention, and whether zero tolerance policies and school policing are creating a school-to-prison pipeline, particularly for historically disadvantaged students. Catherine Lhamon, Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, says her office is ready to provide guidance and training on effective discipline methods so school police are only handling actual criminal activity, not behavior historically handled by school personnel. Don Bridges, Vice President of the National Association of School Resource Officers, cautions against over-zealous school policing: “As long as there’s nothing where there’s a weapon, something that’s going to cause immediate public harm, charging a student within a school setting should be an absolute last resort.”

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