Two Washington Supreme Court justices suggested recently that more African Americans are in prison because they commit more crimes. Guest columnist Nicole A. Gaines lays out the documented evidence that racial discrimination accounts for the disparity.
THE Seattle Times recently reported that “State Supreme Court justices Richard Sanders and James Johnson … said African-American people are overrepresented in the prison population because they commit a disproportionate number of crimes.”
These justices dismissed any role that racial discrimination plays in the disparity.
The Loren Miller Bar Association, a civil-rights-based organization which in part focuses on disparities that affect the African-American community, condemns these uninformed and misleading statements. Recent studies overwhelmingly prove that racism is pervasive throughout the U.S. justice system.
African Americans make up about 4 percent of Washington’s population but approximately 20 percent of the state’s prison population. Why? It is not because African Americans are predisposed to commit crimes. In fact, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found young white Americans, not African Americans, consistently report a higher use of marijuana.
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A May 2008 report by the Human Rights Commission found that although whites and blacks engage in drug offenses, including sales, at comparable rates, blacks make up 37 percent of the people arrested for drug offenses even though they only make up 12.4 percent of the American population.”
New York Police Department statistics from 2008 show that African Americans were arrested for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites. Here in Washington, whites are more involved in drug sales and possession than African Americans, but African Americans are more often arrested and charged in drug cases.
A 2007 study by the Washington State Patrol revealed that during routine traffic stops, “[t]here remains a correlation between the race of the driver and the likelihood of a search.”
African Americans are 70 percent and Hispanics are 50 percent more likely to be searched than white drivers.
This difference in how people of different races are treated is directly related to the disproportionate representation of the races in the criminal-justice system.
The inequities continue at the prosecution stage. According to a 1995 report in King County, “whites [were] less likely to have charges filed against them than minorities.”
When charged, whites [were] more likely to be released on personal recognizance. The same report indicates in King County, “If the police [recommend] not to release a defendant” then more often than not, “bail rather than release is often recommended by the prosecutor’s office for African Americans.” In turn, “judges usually always follow” the prosecutor’s recommendation.
Racial disparities are also apparent at the sentencing phase, particularly in the federal courts. According to a March 2010 U.S. Sentencing Commission report, blacks in the federal system receive 10 percent longer sentences than similarly situated whites charged with the same crime. When it comes to mandatory sentences, “African-Americans are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white defendants and 20 percent more [likely] to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.”
Racial disparities are also prevalent in Washington state. According to Crutchfield’s report, “… [B]lack defendants, who are in custody, and Hispanics charged with less serious types of violent offenses were less likely to plead guilty to crimes than other defendants.”
This is significant. In King County, the prosecuting attorney’s sentencing recommendation for defendants who plea prior to trial is often less than those who take the case to trial. In essence, this means people of color are more likely to receive higher sentences because they chose to exercise their constitutional right to trial.
These are just a few examples of the impact of racial disparities within the criminal-justice system. There are other examples, including but not limited to poverty and disproportionate educational opportunities. Thus, until we, as society, acknowledge the impact of race within our legal system, our criminal-justice system will continue disregarding the content of one’s character and continue judging people based on the color of their skin.
Nicole A. Gaines is president of the Loren Miller Bar Association.