Unequal Justice

Although the American criminal justice system has a long history of racial bias, the United States is only now starting to take an honest look at the problem.

May 16, 1999|By David Cole

THANKS TO the New York police force, Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo have become household names. Thanks to state police in New Jersey, Maryland and elsewhere, "Driving While Black" has entered the general lexicon. For the moment, the nation seems to be taking seriously the issue of racial bias in the criminal justice system. It's about time.

The issue is not new. Were it not for some of its dated rhetoric, the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, which discussed the causes of the urban riots of the mid- and late 1960s, could well be a description of many of our cities today.

"Negroes firmly believe that police brutality and harassment occur repeatedly in Negro neighborhoods. This belief is unquestionably one of the major reasons for intense Negro resentment against the police," the report said, adding:

"Physical abuse is only one source of aggravation in the ghetto. In nearly every city surveyed, the Commission heard complaints of harassment of interracial couples, dispersal of social street gatherings and the stopping of Negroes on foot or in cars without objective basis."

Often, the patterns of harassment were more than isolated incidents of sidewalk justice dispensed by rogue cops. In fact, they reflected a widespread pattern of police abuses rooted in departmental policies. In some cases, police departments created roving task forces that swooped down on high-crime neighborhoods and conducted indiscriminate street stops and searches.

"Police administrators, pressed by public concern about crime, have instituted such patrol practices often without weighing their tension-creating effects and the resulting relationship to civil disorder," the report said.

As the riots of the 1960s taught us, nothing corrodes public trust and faith in the criminal justice system like perceptions of bias. Unfortunately, those perceptions are as well-grounded today as they were then. Consider these facts:

* During a three-year period, from 1995 through 1997, 70 percent of those stopped on Interstate 95 in Maryland were black, though black motorists constitute only 17.5 percent of the speeders.

* During a 10-year period in Illinois, from 1987 to 1997, police in a special drug-interdiction unit stopped African-Americans at a rate double their presence on the roads, and Hispanics at a rate eight times greater than their presence on the road.

* Last month, New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman admitted that state troopers there had been using a racial profile to stop motorists, and two troopers were charged with falsifying their records to hide their discrimination.

* Blacks are only 12 percent of the general population, but more than half of the nation's incarcerated population.

* One out of every three young black men from age 20 to 29 is under criminal justice supervision, either in prison or jail or on probation or parole.

* For every black man who graduates from college each year, 100 are arrested.

Much of what drives these disparities is the war on drugs. According to the United States Public Health Service, African-Americans make up 14 percent of the nation's illicit drug users, roughly equal to their representation in the general population. Yet African-Americans are 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted for drug possession, and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for drug possession. Thus, for a crime they commit at a rate no greater than any other group, blacks are imprisoned at a rate six times their representation in the U.S. population (12 percent, in the 1990 Census).

Unacceptable stereotypes

The racial character of the prison population, in turn, affects profiling. It leads police officers (and, indeed, all of us) to be more suspicious of minorities than of white citizens. For some crimes (although not for drug use), the greater suspicion is not entirely irrational, because there is evidence that minorities are more likely than whites to commit certain crimes, just as the young are more likely than the old, and men more than women. But the fact that such stereotypes might be minimally rational does not make them acceptable.

Relying on racial stereotypes is not necessary to good police work. The comparative statistics regarding blacks and whites are drawn from the very small subset of blacks and whites who engage in criminal conduct. Because most people of all races do not commit crimes, using race as a proxy for suspicion will necessarily sweep in large numbers of innocents. Every year, for example, approximately 98 percent of African-Americans are not arrested for any crime. And while officers are watching people of particular races, they will miss offenders of other races.

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