America’s Racist Criminal Justice System, Part 2

America’s Racist Criminal Justice System, Part 2 March 14, 2012

I just finished an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and I talked about the fact that some of the numbers and statistics in her book shocked the conscience, even for someone like me who has written about our criminal injustice system for years. The racial bias exists at every step in the process, each one magnifying the last. This is the second in a series of posts in which I’ll address how the system creates a permanent minority underclass.

It starts with the police and the choices they make. Study after study shows that the various racial groups buy and sell drugs at nearly the same rates, and that drug transactions are almost entirely racially segregated — blacks sell to blacks, whites sell to whites, Latinos sell to Latinos, and so forth. But police departments make drugs bought and sold by minorities almost their exclusive focus. When making decisions about who to pull over on the road, who to stop on the sidewalk and question or frisk, they almost invariably choose minorities over whites. And the numbers are absolutely staggering.

A study of stops by the New Jersey State Police on the New Jersey Turnpike, for example, found that 15% of the drivers on the turnpike were minorities, but blacks were 42% of those stopped for a traffic violation and 72% of those subsequently arrested — despite the fact that blacks and whites were equally as likely to be violating traffic laws at the time. 77% of all searches were of minorities. A similar study in Maryland found that 17% of drivers on a major highway were black, but 70% of those stopped and searched were black. For minorities on the whole, they constituted 21% of all drivers but 80% of those who were stopped and searched.

But here’s the even more important finding. In both of those studies, whites who were pulled over and searched were actually more likely to have illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles. In New Jersey, whites were twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband than blacks and five times more likely than Latinos. The same thing held true in Maryland. So even though white drivers were far more likely to be caught breaking the law if stopped and searched, black and Latino drivers were far, far more likely to be pulled over by the police.

Lots of other studies back that up. In one county in Florida, 5% of motorists were black or Latino; more than 80% of those stopped were black or Latino. In Illinois, 8% of the population is Latino but more than 30% of those stopped were Latino — and again, whites were significantly more likely to be found with drugs when they were pulled over. In Oakland, blacks were twice as likely to be stopped and three times more likely to be searched than whites.

In New York City, the police routinely stop and frisk pedestrians walking down the street, more than half a million people a year. More than 80% of them are black or Latino. Between 1997 and 2006, more than 350,000 people in NYC were arrested for marijuana possession; blacks were five times more likely than whites to be arrested, even though we know that whites smoke marijuana at slightly higher rates than blacks.

And that’s just the first step. Once someone is arrested, it’s up to the prosecutor to decide what to charge them. And blacks and Latinos routinely face far more serious charges for the same offense than whites. They also get to decide whether to charge them in state or federal court (federal laws carry harsher penalties). In one study in California, of 2200 cases referred to federal court for crack, not a single one of the defendants was white. Not one.

When challenged on these mind-blowing numbers, the police and prosecutors justify it with circular reasoning. Look at our prisons and jails, they say, they’re filled with minorities. That proves that minorities commit drug crimes more often, so that’s where we put out focus. But our prisons and jails are filled with minorities because of the discretionary choices they make, not because minorities actually commit more crimes (especially drug crimes, which make up the vast majority of those in prison). They choose to focus on poor neighborhoods filled with minorities rather than on the college kid selling pot to his buddies or the corporate lawyer doing coke in the executive men’s room. Those choices create the reality that they then use to justify continuing to make the same choice.

But that’s just the beginning. Once someone is arrested or convicted, the real trouble begins. I’ll look at the next step in the process in the next installment.

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