Crime bill debacle

August 12, 1994|By Carl Upchurch

JIM CROW lives again, thanks to the U.S. Congress.

As the House and Senate negotiated the final version of the $30 billion crime bill, they abandoned the Racial Justice Act -- a section of the crime bill that would have allowed death-row convicts to cite racial bias in appealing sentences.

That such bias exists is no longer in dispute. A wealth of data vTC clearly shows that this country executes its citizens based on the answers to three questions: What color are you? How much money do you have? What color was your victim?

Consider this:

Data provided by the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, show that while black people are only 12 percent of the nation's population, they comprise 40 percent of the nearly 2,900 inmates currently on death row. Since the reinstitution of the death penalty, 63 black defendants have been executed for killing whites. Only one white defendant has been executed for killing a black, and he also killed nine whites.

Similarly, the U.S. General Accounting Office found that in 82 percent of the cases it reviewed, "those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks."

The vast majority of death-penalty inmates also are poor: Some 90 percent of those on death row could not afford a lawyer when they initially were tried, and had to rely upon court-appointed counsel. Many states cap legal and investigation fees for these lawyers, so the accused often receives an inadequate defense. Because blacks are disproportionately poor, they are in double jeopardy.

Racial inequity is not about insults or lost promotions for these inmates; it quite literally means death. But in the face of these overwhelming patterns of discrimination, the House barely passed the Racial Justice Act, 217-212. Then the Senate defeated it, 58 to 41, leading the White House to abandon the cause. It was finally buried in conference.

Our lawmakers have pledged under oath to protect and serve all of America, but here they have ignored and then bartered away equal justice for black America. Where is the outrage from the public, or from our leaders? Are we now afraid to speak for justice? Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have soothed the loss of the Racial Justice Act by touting a $9 billion crime prevention program. But the caucus should use this victory as a pulpit to remind the public that the death penalty is the state-sanctioned murder of black men.

The legacy of slavery has not been forgotten. And just as the Black Codes after the Civil War continued the tradition of a

segregated South, this latest crime bill continues the tradition of segregated justice.

If we are to send an appropriate signal to the angry and violent communities in America, then we must begin by saying that all people -- irrespective of race, class, color and gender -- will get a fair hearing from our justice system.

Carl Upchurch lives in Granville, Ohio, and is president of the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice in Pittsburgh.

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