Justice for All?

“The city has paid about $5.7 million since 2011 over lawsuits claiming that police officers brazenly beat up alleged suspects. One hidden cost: The perception that officers are violent can poison the relationship between residents and police.” Baltimore Sun, Undue Force, September 28, 2014

To understand the current situation with protests in communities with large populations of African Americans we need to understand the larger context which many who feel disenfranchised face in their day to day lives, and have faced for a long time. It is not simply a question of race, but race cannot be easily dismissed either. The Baltimore Sun last September ran a story documenting settlements for police misconduct. And another article suggests this is a problem in most large US cities. The report by the justice department documented in Ferguson, would lead a reasonable person to believe the deck was stacked against African Americans there, some of whom spent time in jail simply because they could not pay their fines.

Most strikingly, the court issues municipal arrest warrants not on the basis of public safety needs, but rather as a routine response to missed court appearances and required fine payments. In 2013 alone, the court issued over
9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees. Under state law, a failure to appear in municipal court on a traffic charge
involving a moving violation also results in a license suspension. Ferguson has made this penalty even more onerous by only allowing the suspension to be lifted after payment of an owed fine is made in full. Further, until   recently, Ferguson also added charges, fines, and fees for each missed appearance and payment. Many pending  cases still include such charges that were imposed before the court recently eliminated them, making it as difficult
as before for people to resolve these cases.

It is easy to see why, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and in fact in many other large cities where crime is high, there is a mistrust by African Americans toward the police. Large settlements seem to imply guilt, even if I have never experienced such brutality. An unfair justice system means my chances just might be better if I run than if I take my chances with the police and the courts. Consider the effect of living in such a situation if one is poor. A parking ticket, something many have received all over the United States, could lead to extra fines, fees, a suspended license and even jail. Even if the bias is subconscious (which seems unlikely given the emails uncovered), it is not hard to see why certain residents of Ferguson would not trust the police and the court system. The Justice Department report says as much.”Ferguson’s approach to law enforcement both reflects and reinforces racial bias, including stereotyping. The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans, and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race.”

Writing in a blog on the Washington Post, Max Ehrenfruend documents this statistically.

Some readers might have felt that there was nothing unusual about these practices. After all, don’t cops everywhere do what they can to issue traffic tickets? That was Bret Stephens’s question in his column in The Wall Street Journal. “Using ticket revenue and other fines to raise revenues is one of the oldest municipal tricks in the book,” he writes. “That turns out to be as true in Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington, D.C., as it is in Ferguson. So are we talking about institutional racism or just the usual government bloodsucking?”

Since there might be some lingering confusion on this point, it’s worth noting again that yes, indeed, we are talking about institutional racism. The report described a “focus on revenue” that “was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic. “Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations.”

Fourteen percent of Ferguson’s budget revenue was the result of these fines, so many that there is one for every man, woman and child in the city of Ferguson. And it is as much as 50 percent of budget revenue in other suburbs. (Compare that with just 2 percent of revenue in the city of Saint Louis.) It is not hard to see, then, how anger might be fermenting under the surface and when released might get ugly.

It is true that more whites are killed by police than blacks. But it is also to be expected since there are five times the numbers of whites in the United States than blacks. Consider this quote from the website Politifact.

Candace McCoy is a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. McCoy said blacks might be more likely to have a violent encounter with police because they are convicted of felonies at a higher rate than whites. Felonies include everything from violent crimes like murder and rape, to property crimes like burglary and embezzlement, to drug trafficking and gun offenses.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that in 2004, state courts had over 1 million felony convictions. Of those, 59 percent were committed by whites and 38 percent by blacks. But when you factor in the population of whites and blacks, the felony rates stand at 330 per 100,000 for whites and 1,178 per 100,000 for blacks. That’s more than a three-fold difference.

McCoy noted that this has more to do with income than race. The felony rates for poor whites are similar to those of poor blacks.

This complicates the debate. For when someone like Michael Medved says more whites than blacks are killed by police, he is right. When blacks say they are disproportionately targeted by police, it is easy to see how they might come to that conclusion. And when we observe that economically poor whites and blacks are convicted at roughly the same rate, it is easy to conclude that poverty makes it less likely someone has a good defense, as they often have to rely on overworked public defenders to provide their defense. Would O.J. Simpson have been found free if his defense team was a public defender?

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the United States has more prisoners than any other country in the world. We have more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. More than one of four of all prisoners in the world are in the United States. And even at that, our prisons are overcrowded. We have 600,000 prisoners more than China, which has a significantly higher population, and almost 1.5 million more than the next country, Russia.

The Economist has numbers that are even higher. But when there is closer examination of what is behind the numbers, what they report is most interesting, and in fact quite sad. In an article in 2010, the Economist documented the case of the 65 year old jailed for suspicion of smuggling orchids into America. “Prosecutors described [him] as the “kingpin” of an international smuggling ring. He was dumbfounded: his annual profits were never more than about $20,000.” As his legal bills grew beyond what he could pay he plead guilty and was sentenced to 17 months in prison. For selling orchids from Latin American suppliers who were not always accurate with their paperwork.

“In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100. Since then, the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences,” writes the same author in the Economist. Today it is one in 100. And consider California, where almost 4,000 people are serving life sentences for non-violent and crimes that are not serious due to the “three strikes and your out law.”

White collar crime provides another avenue for jailing large numbers of people.

Innocent defendants may plead guilty in return for a shorter sentence to avoid the risk of a much longer one. A prosecutor can credibly threaten a middle-aged man that he will die in a cell unless he gives evidence against his boss. This is unfair, complains Harvey Silverglate, the author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent”. If a defence lawyer offers a witness money to testify that his client is innocent, that is bribery. But a prosecutor can legally offer something of far greater value—his freedom—to a witness who says the opposite. The potential for wrongful convictions is obvious. – The Economist

And the challenges are that even thought some studies document that blacks and whites use and sell drugs are roughly the same rate, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for these crimes. There is even an old saying concerning drugs. White people do the crime, black people do the time. As the Brookings Institute writes, “An estimated one-third of black male Americans will spend time in state or federal prison at some point in their lifetime – more than double the rate from the 1970s and over five times higher than the rate for white males.”

Drug crimes have driven the steep rise in prison population growth. In 2011, for example, just under half of all arrests were drug related. Even though the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prison population. What’s more, despite spending more than $1 trillion on the “War on Drugs”, the results of this new “get tough” policy has not reduced illegal drug use. According to the World Health Organization, the United States has more illegal drug users than anywhere else in the world. Clearly prison has not been a deterrent to crime.

The effect of this policy has been the particularly difficult for the black community. Consider this from Virgin Airlines owner and billionaire Richard Branson.

About 40,000 people were in U.S. jails and prisons for drug crimes in 1980, compared with more than 500,000 today. Excessively long prison sentences and locking up people for small drug offenses contribute greatly to this ballooning of the prison population. It also represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy. People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than white people — yet from 1980 to 2007, blacks were arrested for drug law violations at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates.

Add to this the reality that many states have signed agreements with private companies, often with a clause to maintain a certain population, it is not difficult to see how we have arrived at the exploding prison population. My limited experience of working with those in jail also suggests that the hope that these issues, like addictions, might be treated, is not considerably likely.

Perhaps the beginning is the admission of a problem. Even if at the very basic we could admit the recent spike in prison populations has not led to a reduction in the crimes it was intended to address, providing greater economic opportunity, and a commitment to serve the common good might be a good start.