Legal system betrays young black men

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

September 01, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives is reporting today that well over half of the young black men in this city are entangled in the criminal justice system on any given day.

NCIA's study found that 56 percent of Baltimore's black men between 18 and 35 years old were either incarcerated, on probation or parole, awaiting trial or sentencing, or being sought on an arrest warrant.

These findings mirror the results of a similar survey NCIA conducted this spring in Washington as well as the findings of a host of national studies dating back to the mid-1960s.

"This is the situation in virtually every urban center," said Jerome G. Miller, president of the suburban Washington research group. "What is happening in Washington and Baltimore is happening across the country. African-American men are being swept up in extraordinary numbers by a criminal justice system out of ideas and out of control."

Miller continued: "These studies underscore a sad truth -- that serious, unanticipated consequences have fallen upon African-American men as a result of a virtual total reliance on law enforcement to deal with a wide range of personal and social problems."

What Miller is describing here is a great and unspeakable evil -- an evil of holocaustic proportions. Remember, we are not describing the level of criminality in the black community, but the system's disproportionate tendency to use criminal sanctions against blacks.

The authors of the study titled the report on their findings "Hobbling a Generation" because thousands of young men who are arrested, tried, and incarcerated for even minor offenses are given no second chance to build a peaceful, productive life for themselves.

A better title might be "The Cold-Blooded Systematic Destruction of a Generation and a Community" because when the potential of so many thousands is destroyed, their families, neighbors and even the larger community are affected.

The most horrible aspect of all is that the decision-makers in the criminal justice system -- the police officers and judges and prosecutors -- know what they are doing.

They know, for instance, that the "War On Drugs" is being fought primarily in the cities and primarily against blacks. Resources in the cities are directed toward arrests and incarceration. Resources in the suburbs are directed toward treatment and rehabilitation.

Granted anonymity by researchers a few years ago, the nation's prosecutors conceded that the lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key response to crime that prevails in most urban areas was a losing proposition. A better approach, said the majority of prosecutors, would be to spend money improving schools, health care and job training.

The nation's police chiefs made a similar plea when they declared that they did not want their officers stuck in the middle of a shooting war against drugs.

There has even been an opinion poll that shows that the majority of whites acknowledge that the criminal justice system treats blacks more harshly.

But knowing these things and taking responsibility for them are two different issues.

Police, prosecutors, and judges say they are not given alternatives.

They blame the legislature for setting spending priorities. They blame the public for directing that those priorities focus on incarceration. They blame the historical biases of society for the fact that black men are viewed with greater hostility.

The one thing the NCIA study does not show is that an increasing percentage of the decision-makers at every level of the criminal justice system are black, as are an increasing percentage of the lawmakers on both the state and local level.

The black community had hoped that putting black law enforcement officials in decision-making positions would make a difference, that they would set different priorities, find different solutions.

But for the most part, blacks are making the same decisions that their white counterparts made.

And they are making the same excuses.

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