Can black men find justice in the American criminal justice system?

DC-Misc-African-American-Hands-on-Jail-BarsBY POLLY MANN

Certainly well-educated, prosperous African-American men can find justice in the system, but what about those who do not fit this picture? The incarceration rate for African Americans is so high that young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to go to jail than to find a job. “Prison has become the new poverty trap,” according to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western. “It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.” The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, locking up about 500 people for every 100,000 residents, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  The incarceration rate for African Americans is about 3,074 per 100,000 residents, which is more than six times as high as the national average. 25% of African-Americans who grew up in the past three decades have had at least one parent locked up during their childhood. Police have increasingly cracked down on crime, and courts have imposed harsher sentences since 1980, causing the number of Americans—especially blacks—in state and federal prisons to quintuple. This high incarceration rate is leading to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy. The incarceration of parents also affects children who are more likely to grow up impoverished, uneducated and emotionally strained to become aggressive or depressed adults, ending up in prison themselves.
Since the incarceration rate is highest for African Americans, it makes it more difficult for them to escape poverty, to receive higher levels of education and to escape a life of crime, according to a report of the Sentencing Project on the staggering racial disparities that permeate the American criminal justice system. One in every three black males born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared with one in every six Latino males, and one in every 17 white males, if current trends continue. The report argues that racial disparity pervades “every stage of the United States criminal justice system, from arrest to trial to sentencing” … Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested. Once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.”
The report’s findings lead its authors to conclude that the U.S. is violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that all citizens must be treated equally under the law. Central to the report’s argument is the fact that African-American and, to a lesser extent, Hispanic men are more likely to spend time behind bars than their white counterparts, according to recent data from the U.S. government. The reasons for this are widely debated, but the report insists the higher-than-average crime rate among blacks and Latinos in the U.S. or the presence of deliberate racism in the criminal justice system is not the answer. While those factors may contribute to the problem, the reasons go much deeper. The problem begins with police activity. According to Justice Department data cited in the report, police arrested black youth for drug crimes at more than twice the rate of white youth between 1980 and 2010, nationwide. Yet a 2012 study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that white high school students were slightly more likely to have abused illegal drugs within a month’s time than black students of the same age. Blacks are also far more likely than whites to be stopped by the police while driving. The Sentencing Project report largely attributes the racial disparities in both traffic and drug arrests to “implicit racial bias” on the part of the police.  The disparities don’t end with arrests. Because blacks and Latinos are generally poorer than whites, they are more likely to rely on court-appointed public defenders, who tend to work for agencies that are underfunded and understaffed. In 2012, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, more than 70% of public defender offices reported that they were struggling to come up with the funding needed to provide adequate defense services to poor people.
Racial disparities within the justice system have been exacerbated by the war on drugs, which led the country’s population of incarcerated drug offenders to soar from 42,000 in 1980 to nearly half a million in 2007. From 1999 to 2005, African Americans constituted about 13% of drug users, but they made up about 46% of those convicted for drug offenses, the report points out.
A February 2015 report of the Brenman Center for Justice which concentrated on states with the largest prison population, found that incarceration had a minimal effect on reduced criminal activity. For example, the number of California’s inmates jumped from 24,569 in 1980 to 132,523 in 1997 although this higher incarceration rate had almost no effect on the state’s crime rate. By 2013 there were 122,800 prisoners in California and the incarceration had zero effect on crime. Yet Michigan, Nevada, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts and the Carolinas reduced their prison populations by 2 – 15% as their crime rates fell 15%. Due to these findings, Brenman concluded that, “Incarceration in the U.S. has reached a level where it no longer provides a meaningful crime reduction benefit.” In other words, more incarceration does not guarantee less crime. As of Feb. 5, the federal prison population remains slightly above 210,315, while the total prison and jail population hovers around 2.3 million—the largest of any country in the world. On average, taxpayers pay $31,286 per inmate. Proposed congressional legislation will provide prisoners some relief but there is no indication of interest in the massive overhaul the system requires.

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