It is appropriate that after two years of renewed questions – following Ferguson – about the role of race in the criminal justice system, on the eve of one of the most polarized elections, we are finally starting to get some data.
On Friday, California AG Kamala Harris “announced the release of a new round of OpenJustice data that explores adult arrests and racial disparities in California over time, marking another significant expansion of the first-of-its-kind criminal justice transparency initiative rolled out last September.”
What do we see? What we would expect to see.
“This data release highlights pervasive inequalities in our criminal justice system,” said Attorney General Harris. “Data is key to being smart on crime and crafting public policy that reflects the reality of policing in our communities and improves public safety. We must continue the national dialogue about criminal justice reform and promote the American ideal that we are all equal under the law.”
In 2015, felony arrests dropped by 29 percent (~120,000 arrests) while misdemeanor arrests went up by 11 percent (~80,000 arrests), as Proposition 47 re-classed many drug possession and theft offenses under $950 from felonies or wobblers to misdemeanors.
While these arrest patterns have “led to some notable reductions in racial disparities,” the report found, “Despite the overall drop in arrest rates, particularly among African Americans and Hispanics, significant disparities by race still remain in 2015.”
The findings include:
- African Americans are 10 times more likely to be arrested for robbery, 3-5 times more likely to be arrested for burglary, theft and assault than whites.
- African American men are 6 times more likely to be arrested for felonies involving narcotics or marijuana than are whites.
- African American women are 20 times more likely to be arrested for prostitution than are white women; compared to white men, African American men and Hispanic men are also arrested for prostitution at 6.5 and 3.5 times greater rates, respectively.
For most offenses, Hispanic women are about as likely to be arrested as white women, while Hispanic men are more likely to be arrested than white men.
These are actual data that can now be used to assess how to change the system. It is not a solution, but at least we have a start.
California is not isolated in these inequities.
In Ferguson, while Officer Darren Wilson was exonerated in the DOJ report, as the New York Times wrote, “The report into the broader practices of the local police department will give the context for the shooting, describing the mounting sense of frustration and anger in a predominantly black city where the police department and local government are mostly white.”
They continue, “Blacks accounted for 86 percent of traffic stops in 2013 but make up 63 percent of the population, according to the most recent data published by the Missouri attorney general. And once they were stopped, black drivers were twice as likely to be searched, even though searches of white drivers were more likely to turn up contraband.”
Moreover, “For people in Ferguson who cannot afford to pay their tickets, routine traffic stops can become yearslong ordeals, with repeated imprisonments because of mounting fines. Such fines are the city’s second-largest source of revenue after sales tax. Federal investigators say that has provided a financial incentive to continue law enforcement policies that unfairly target African-Americans.”
The Times continues, “Investigators do not need to prove that Ferguson’s policies are racially motivated or that the police intentionally singled out minorities. They need to show only that police tactics had a ‘disparate impact’ on African-Americans and that this was avoidable.”
Then there is the report out of Chicago.
The Chicago Police Accountability Task Force concluded: “There are too many neighborhoods in Chicago that are devastated by crime and abject poverty. In those areas, aside from a recommitment to investments in jobs, education and many other important community anchors, those residents need the protection of the police. However, CPD’s own data and other information strongly suggests that CPD’s response to the violence is not sufficiently imbued with Constitutional policing tactics and is also comparatively void of actual procedural and restorative justice in the day-to-day encounters between the police and citizens.”
The report concludes, “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
They add, “Stopped without justification, verbally and physically abused, and in some instances arrested, and then detained without counsel—that is what we heard about over and over again.”
In July of this year, the Washington Post featured a story where polling found that a majority of Americans think race relations are getting worse.
“This is certainly the worst political climate that I’ve seen in my lifetime, but on some level the violence and hatred have always been around,” said Peniel Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and a professor of history at the University of Texas.
And that is the key point – the stats from California, the practices at Ferguson, the policies of the Chicago PD, all have been around for some time. What has changed is not the reality of those practices, but the willingness of people to take it.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was a polarizing figure in his time. He is venerated as a hero today. As Frederick Douglas once said, “Without struggle, there can be no progress.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting