SPINKS: Justice is not color blind

New legislation must be introduced to correct the bias against blacks in the justice system

Last summer, I watched in horror and astonishment as George Zimmerman walked free after being acquitted on charges of both second-degree murder and manslaughter. However you feel about the eventual outcome of the trial, it seems indisputable that race played a major role in the case. And many observers who followed the trial closely, myself included, felt it was very possible that a different verdict may have been reached if the victim of the alleged crime had been white — unlike Trayvon Martin, who was black.

That we even considered such a possibility points to an enormous problem with institutionalized prejudice within our justice system. To be clear: I want to discuss the statistical evidence that demonstrates a disparity in treatment between white and black citizens in our justice system. I want to talk about practices that have been perpetuated for many years to the disadvantage of black citizens. I want to talk about systematic patterns that lead to institutionalized racism. While racist individuals can and certainly do participate in our justice system, targeting those people is not my aim. I am concerned with a larger cultural and societal problem.

One simply cannot address institutionalized racism without first mentioning the prison-industrial complex. This problem warrants its own column, but succinctly: It is important to understand that much of the United States’ prison system is privatized. The government contracts out the administration of our prisons, and those contracts mandate a certain occupancy rate at all times — it is literally more profitable to have more people in jail, and that leads to unfair targeting of offenders and longer sentences for victimless crimes. According to Mother Jones, upon examination of 62 state and local prison systems, 41 were found to have occupancy requirements of 80 to 100 percent, regardless of whether the crime rate was increasing or decreasing. Put another way—these prisons mandate a certain amount of prisoners, regardless of whether or not there are actually criminals to put behind bars.

One of the most notable victimless crimes is drug use and drug possession, and the statistics clearly show that black citizens are unfairly targeted in drug arrests. More than half of federal prisoners were incarcerated for drug crimes in 2010, and black youth are ten times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes than white youth. This is true even though black kids are actually statistically less likely to abuse drugs than their white counterparts.

And drug crimes are not the only place where inequality exists. In the administration of the stop-and-frisk laws in New York, for instance, a clear bias exists against black citizens. According to the NYCLU, the NYPD stopped approximately 600,000 people for random frisks in 2010. Of those stopped, 52 percent were black and only 9 percent were white. Of the black citizens stopped and searched, 98 percent did not have any contraband on them.

Another clear disparity exists when it comes to the recently implemented and fairly controversial “stand-your-ground” laws in many states. Stand-your-ground laws were used as a defense in both the Trayvon Martin case and the more recent (but less publicized) Michael Dunn trial. Perhaps stand-your-ground laws are legally valid — but a problem arises when they do not offer all citizens equal protection, and they certainly do not. According to the Christian Science Monitor)/2, in states with stand-your-ground laws, the shooting of a black person by a white person is found justifiable 17 percent of the time, while the shooting of a white person by a black person is found justifiable only 1 percent of the time.

It seems inconceivable that we could live in a world where one out of every fifteen black adult males will be incarcerated, while white men face only a 1 in 106 chance, but we do. Why is this? How do we solve it? The truth is that rectifying institutionalized prejudice is no easy task. But common sense solutions like conjuring more representative, diverse juries could certainly help. When economists from Carnegie Mellon, Duke University and Queen Mary conducted a study on Florida jury verdicts from 2000-2010, they found that all-white juries convicted black defendants 16 percent more often than white defendants. Interestingly, the discrepancy immediately disappeared when even one black person was introduced onto the jury.

We also need to overcome barriers of misunderstanding to ensure fairer verdicts. As Bridgett Jones, the former supervisor of the juvenile division of the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office, so rightfully observed, “It’s easier to identify with people that are more like yourself, so if you have judges that are predominantly from that same community, they can identify.” That is to say, judges (who are usually of a majority race), are more likely to cut white kids a break during sentencing. According to one study, minority youth represent 82 percent of the cases where juveniles were tried and convicted as adults. The implication is that privileged white youth are more likely to have a steady home life, including the financial resources to keep them otherwise occupied and out of trouble, and a two-parent household with more stringent supervision and discipline. White people are also more likely to be able to afford a skilled attorney. But until we acknowledge the socioeconomic divides that influence our justice system, they will continue to skew it in favor of the white population.

The statistics are innumerable, and the evidence is incontrovertible. It is an affront to everything this country purports to stand for — equality, liberty, fairness, and justice — that we allow such a system to exist. We need more representative juries, a more comprehensive understanding of cultural and socioeconomic differences, fewer motives to incarcerate large numbers of people, and more awareness of discrepancies in the administration of justice — with regulated monitoring and tangible consequences for those who perpetuate the problem.

Ashley Spinks is an Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily.

Published March 6, 2014 in Opinion

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