A report released this fall by the Sentencing Project suggests that one in every three black men will go to prison in his lifetime.
The report, which discusses racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, said the country operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities. It examines racial disparities in police activity, in trials and in sentencing.
What the report says
The report indicates that a significant portion of the disparity in arrest rates is attributed to implicit racial bias – unconscious associations people make about racial groups. Also known as stereotypes, the biases occur when people have to make fast decisions with “imperfect” information, and the biases allow people to “fill in” the missing information and make decisions in a limited time.
The 26-page report can be viewed by visiting http://bit.ly/19njFko.
The report used data from the Bureau of Justice and determined that while white, black and Hispanic motorists were stopped at similar rates nationwide, black motorists were more likely to be searched during a stop.
In the court system, racial minorities continue to encounter bias, in addition to inadequate resources and training, that together contribute to the racial disparities in the justice system, according to the report.
Indigent defense agencies cannot provide adequate representation to their clients because they are so understaffed and underfunded, according to the report, which also said the weak state of indigent defense in the U.S. affects mainly racial minorities because black and Hispanic defendants are more likely to require the services of a public defender than white defendants.
In sentencing, the report found that black and Hispanic defendants received, on average, longer sentences than white defendants. Additionally, defendants convicted of murdering a white victim are more likely to face the death penalty than those convicted of killing non-white victims, according to the report.
'They have to learn it'
Dr. Melencia Johnson, a professor of sociology at USC Aiken who focuses on criminology, teaches a class on race, crime and justice.
“It's the same thing we've been teaching for the last few years,” she said of the study. “We learn our implicit biases. You're socialized that way from your family, your friends, your employer. No one comes out of the womb saying that they're racist. They have to learn it.”
“Yes, the laws may be race neutral, but those people that are applying the laws and enforcing them have these implicit biases,” she continued.
People may not be racist themselves, but certain policies such as the controversial “stop-and-frisk” program in New York can drive them to have implicit biases, Johnson said.
“You may not be explicitly racist, but when you are told to stop and frisk at least 200 people a day and write a report on it, you tend to go to those 'high-crime areas,' which are largely minority areas,” she said.
Phillip Howell, president of the Aiken branch of the NAACP, also said the study is nothing he hasn't heard before, and that there is a “disconnect” between law enforcement and the black community.
“People believe that because there's so many African-Americans in prison it's because they commit the most crime, and that's just not true,” he said. “They get convicted more, therefore, they are sentenced and they do more prison time. They can't afford the fancy lawyers. Most of them have public defenders … and they just can't devote the time they need to really defend a person adequately.”
Howell said the perception of the black community is that the police will “let the white person go.”
He cited the case of Lukisha Thomas, a black woman who died in April after being struck by a vehicle while walking on the sidewalk on York Street. The driver of the vehicle, who is white, was charged with careless driving, which Howell called “unacceptable” at the time.
“There needs to be programs that can repair that,” he said of the relationship between blacks and law enforcement. “We need the police. I feel like, in Aiken, the police do a pretty good job, but it's still not as it should be. A trusting relationship is what needs to be built.”
'A broader spectrum'
Aiken Public Safety's Lt. Karl Odenthal said the criminal justice system is not perfect, but the report was not completely objective.
He noted that it mentions other studies that demonstrate higher crime rates are better explained by socioeconomic factors, and that disadvantaged neighborhoods experience higher rates of crime regardless of racial composition.
“When you try to make race the sole thing just by looking at numbers, you can make numbers say whatever you want,” he said. “What I think is, it's a broader spectrum.”
He noted that in the Second Judicial Circuit, a majority of the criminal cases end with a guilty plea instead of going to trial.
“There's not even a trial,” he said. “How can they be targeting if you're pleading guilty to the charge?”
Aiken Public Safety has a clear policy on racial profiling.
“It says, 'We don't do it,'” Odenthal said. “It's not accepted in our department.”
Turning it around
The report lists 10 recommendations to reduce the existence and effect of racial bias in the justice system. They include abolishing capital punishment, fully funding indigent defense, allowing social framework evidence and structural reform litigation in trials and implementing training to reduce racial bias.
Johnson said some of the ideas could be implemented.
“There'd have to be a serious overhaul in the government before we see many of these happening,” she said.
Racial sensitivity training would be useful in helping people not outwardly discriminate but would not change a person's implicit biases, Johnson said.
“Until there are departmental policies that are created and followed not to target people because of their race, their ethnicity, the way they talk or the way they dress, I don't think the training is going to help reduce their bias,” she said. “It has to start within the family unit, within the schools before you grow up to be an adult and have these implicit biases – teaching tolerance right on. ... It's going to take decades.”
Repairing the disconnect
Howell said he'd like to see a board of residents that review law enforcement in their jobs.
Cynthia Mitchell, community services coordinator for Aiken Public Safety, said a similar committee is available. The Aiken Safe Communities Action Team consists of community members who work alongside Aiken Public Safety.
“As the community and law enforcement work side by side in their respective lanes, that puts in place an automatic checks and balances,” she said. “As we build meaningful relationships, one side doesn't want to let the other side down anyway. It's almost like we review each other.”
Howell also said there needs to be more programs that put officers out interacting with residents in a non-threatening or non-emergency setting to build relationships.
Mitchell said Aiken Public Safety has a number of such programs already up and running, including golf clinics and basketball tournaments for children, community cafes, Coffee with a Cop, Chat with Chief and mobile movie nights.
“Public Safety has facilitated, in particular, a camp in Crosland Park – basically what we view as a minority neighborhood,” Mitchell said.
Public Safety is always seeking feedback on programs and what does and doesn't work.
“Even as law enforcement goes out into the community, we need the community to come to the events and engage in the dialogue with Public Safety,” she said. “… We've been soliciting people to come and look at the individual committees we have under Safe Communities and everybody get in where you fit in.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.