Justice system holds more young blacks Numbers have risen dramatically since '90, Sentencing Project says

October 05, 1995|By KATE SHATZKIN | KATE SHATZKIN,SUN STAFF

Young African-American men and, increasingly, women are involved in the U.S. criminal justice system at a rate that has climbed markedly in the last five years and is devastating to black families, according to a national study to be released today.

The study by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that promotes alternatives to incarceration, estimates that nearly one out of every three black men in their 20s is in jail, prison, or on probation or parole on any given day. It reports a dramatic rise since 1990, when the group found one in four black men in their 20s under criminal-justice supervision. The increase is even greater for black women, whose numbers went up 78 percent between 1989 and 1994, according to the study.

Marc Mauer, the group's assistant director and co-author of the report, said the numbers show millions of African-Americans live a far different reality from O. J. Simpson, who was found not guilty of murder charges Monday after mounting a high-priced defense.

"The flip side of the Simpson trial is these 800,000 young, black men who are in the criminal-justice system today," Mr. Mauer said. "Nobody knows their names. Nobody knows who their defense attorneys are. It's taking a huge toll, I think, on the African-American community in general, in terms of family and community stability."

Mr. Mauer attributes the trend to the nation's lack of drug-treatment options; longer, mandatory sentences and police "sweeps" more likely to snag minor, nonwhite drug offenders.

"Middle-class people don't have any problem getting the best treatment they can," he said. "We have a public health approach for those who can afford it and a criminal justice approach for those who can't."

The numbers may be striking, but they are no surprise in African-American communities that live with the consequences.

"This is devastating confirmation of our worst fears of the impact of the criminal justice system on the African-American community," said Wade Henderson, director of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "This report confirms the need for jobs in inner-city communities and meaningful outreach to alter the cycle that takes young men from inner-city streets to prison cells."

In Maryland, African-Americans account for about 65 percent of the people in state prisons or under supervision by the Division of Parole and Probation, according to recent figures. The state, by contrast, is 24 percent black. Of the 3,858 people in pre-trial detention in Baltimore yesterday, nearly 90 percent were black, said spokeswoman Barbara Cooper.

A 1992 study by the National Center on Institutions and $l Alternatives reported that 56 percent of black men 18 to 35 years old in Baltimore had been in trouble with the law.

Herbert Hoelter, the center's executive director who worked on the Baltimore study, said continuing research shows that by 2005, one-third of the entire U.S. black population will be involved in the system.

The Sentencing Project study is based on estimates and assumptions from 1994 U.S. Department of Justice data. It reports that in 1994, 30.2 percent of black men in their 20s were in jail, prison, on probation or parole on any given day, compared with 6.7 percent of white men in the same age range.

Michael Tonry, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who has written on race and crime in the United States, said the numbers seemed accurate within a few percentage points.

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