Racial biases in the criminal justice system have started to decline, according to new research by the bipartisan Council on Criminal Justice, but that is no reason to celebrate. Mostly black and brown faces still fill the country’s jails and prisons, and people of color make up most of the parole and probation rolls. The work is not done until the gap is eliminated and the unfair targeting of people of color has ended.
Still, the strides the report outlined shouldn’t be ignored. The imprisonment rate for black men decreased for all crime categories except public order offenses, such as disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, according to the report, which analyzed data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics spanning 2000 to 2016. African Americans were incarcerated at a rate 8.3 times higher than white people in 2000, and for Hispanic people the rate was 2.6 times higher. By 2016 those ratios dropped to 5.1 to 1 and 1.6 to 1, respectively, according to the study.
While that represents progress, African Americans are still five times more likely to be imprisoned than white people and Hispanics nearly twice as likely, and both imbalances are wholly unacceptable. The culture of locking up people of color, whether because of unconscious biases our outright discrimination, is still alive and well. Just recently, The New York Times reported that police officers said they were told by a commander to go after blacks and Latinos for minor offenses like jumping turnstiles. Leave Asians and whites alone, they were instructed.
If there is a bright spot to the numbers, it’s that they offer encouragement to those who have kept issues like mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, and unfair sentencing in the spotlight. It adds even more credence to the good work of groups like the Innocence Project that have worked, sometimes on shoestring budgets, to free those who have been wrongly convicted based on trumped-up charges, coerced confessions, and bad witness testimony. All of this activism has helped keep up the pressure to end biases by showing the tragic result such disparities in sentencing and imprisonment have. It’s well-documented that people with prison records have a hard time getting jobs and that incarceration breaks up families. We need more resources directed at these issues, and these groups need to keep plowing ahead to keep the biases in law enforcement at the forefront.
Researchers with the Council on Criminal Justice say they will use the data collected to come up with policies that can help further erode the disparities in the system. They concede that outcomes vary by race and type of crime, making it hard to point to a single cause for the disparities. The largest drop in racial disparity occurred for drug offenses, which also correlated with a drop in the disparity of those who were jailed. We need to know more about why those drops occurred and whether similar principles should be applied in other areas.
Researchers also should conduct an analysis by state and region to see if the problem is more pronounced in certain parts of the country. Do factors such as past criminal history impact whether or not someone ends up in jail again? In other words, is the prison pipeline cycle perpetuating itself? Also, how do police departments change a culture in which police officers scrutinize people of color more intensely than white residents? Racial bias, bail reform, and the over-policing of low-income neighborhoods are all areas ripe for reform.
Before we look at Criminal Justice reform, Meet Archie Williams:
Of all the Presidents who a large majority of Americans thought could possibly get a criminal justice reform bill — one of ANY kind passed — Donald Trump would have been the last name mentioned. But he’s the one that did it: The First Step Act.
The First Step Act, which replaced a federal “three strikes” rule that imposed a life sentence for three or more convictions – with a 25-year sentence, is benefiting thousands of incarcerated Black men, according to a new report. More than 1,000 individuals incarcerated in federal prisons were granted sentence reductions in the four months since the First Step Act was signed into law, according to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC).
Their sentences were reduced by a mean of 73 months or 29.4 percent, as a result of the resentencing provisions allowed under the Act which, in addition to shortening mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, applied resentencing to be applied retroactively to individuals convicted of crack cocaine offenses before 2010 – when the federal government reduced disparities between crack and powder cocaine offenses.
Over a quarter of the 1,051 resentencing motions were granted by federal courts in Florida, South Carolina, and Virginia.
Over 91 percent of the individuals whose sentences were shortened were African American and 98 percent were male, the USSC said.
The average age of those granted resentencing motions was 45 – and the average age at the time of the original sentence was 32.
Is there still racism in America’s criminal justice system? Absolutely. Is it better with The First Step Act? Probably so. I say “Probably,” because there are many who feel it really IS just a first step and that much more needs to be done.
But isn’t there something to be said for getting a start that in just months achieved the startling results that it has? Isn’t it startling that the United States first African American president was unable to get it done and it took the rebel from Queens to muster sufficient votes in the House and Senate so he could sign it into law?
As our story on Saturday said, “Racism has no color.” But there’s no doubt that in criminal justice, the African American community has been profusely disadvantaged in dramatic fashion.
I don’t care if you’re a mother of several black children, or an African American high school football coach or even if you’re a Caucasian billionaire Wall Street banker, you’d be blind if you didn’t see systemic racism that has plagued our nation for years. The First Step Act is just the first step.
No, this is not a call to allow law-breakers to not pay for their crimes. It’s a call for justice for all: nothing more and nothing less. It’s a call for law enforcement agency members and those in robes that pass sentences and every other man, woman and child to recognize there’s no right for minorities and another for whites when it comes to laws. “Equal Justice Under the Law” means just that.
The First Step needs to be just that: the First Step. There are many more steps necessary. Let’s see who will step up to lead the charge for the Second Step.