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Civil Rights Groups to Fight Racism in Justice System
by CHARLES LEVENDOSKY
May 8, 2000
On May 4, the 50th anniversary of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the coalition issued a stark report outlining the ever-growing racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system.
The report shows that the color of a person's skin often determines whether or not the person will be stopped by police; whether an arrest will be made; how long the person's criminal sentence will be; what kind of plea bargain, if any, will be offered; whether or not the person will be jailed for a first offense; and whether the person is given the death penalty.
More than 180 national organizations belong to LCCR, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights coalition. The day before the report was released, the coalition's board of directors voted unanimously ``to work to reform criminal justice laws and practices at the federal and state levels that compound racial disparity.''
The report, ``Justice on Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System,'' is, unfortunately, entirely consistent with the devastating report on racism in the nation's juvenile justice system released last week by Building Blocks for Youth, an affiliation of organizations that promote fairness in the judicial system.
The LCCR report indicates that civil rights groups are now going to turn their attention to criminal justice system.
David Cole, law professor at Georgetown University Law Center and author of ``No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System,'' which is cited in the report, considers it most significant that the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights issued the report.
Cole expanded on his statement in an interview last Friday: ``This is the pre-eminent coalition on civil rights organizations, and I think that the area of racial equality in criminal justice has, unfortunately, not been a priority at all for civil rights organizations for far too long.
``Many civil rights organizations have avoided the issue. Now you're seeing, with this report and with the American Civil Liberties Union's focus on racial profiling in the last year or so, increasing attention to the criminal justice system from civil rights and civil liberties groups. That's critically important.
``I've long felt that the inequities in the criminal justice system are central to the difficulties that minorities face throughout American society. All the advances we've made in more traditional civil rights are vastly undercut by the disparities that exist in the criminal justice system. So, I think it's important that the civil rights community is beginning to make this a civil rights issue.''
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said in releasing the report at a press conference, ``Today, the civil rights movement turns its attention to a new battle: reform of the nation's criminal justice system. The new fight is necessary because the racial disparities in criminal justice have become so pervasive that they threaten our hard-fought victories of the last 50 years.''
The unequal treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system begins even before any arrests are made. It begins with the investigation of suspected criminal activity. The report shows that police disproportionately target minorities as criminal suspects.
Racial profiling makes black motorists targets of the police. According to the report, from 1995 to 1997, 70 percent of the drivers stopped by the Maryland State Police on Interstate 95 were black, yet less than 18 percent of all the drivers on the highway were black.
Similar percentages of stops by highway patrol officers were found in other states, although there was no significant difference in driving patterns of white and non-white motorists. Very few of these stops resulted in tickets, and fewer still ended in criminal charges.
Racial profiling is based upon the assumption that a random stop of a member of a racial or ethnic minority will more than likely yield an arrest for criminal activity. There is no evidence to support such an assumption.
Racial drug-courier profiling used by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency at major airports to identify drug traffickers targets black females.
However, a recent report by the congressional General Accounting Office indicates that white females are twice as likely to be found carrying contraband as black females.
Racial profiling is used by police in major urban centers like New York and Los Angeles as an excuse for temporarily detaining, questioning and patting down pedestrians. Once again, blacks and Hispanics are the main targets of stop and frisks.
The report points out the two socially destructive yet baseless assumptions underlying racial profiling: 1) Most criminals are members of minority races and 2) most minorities are criminals. No assumptions could be more destructive to the social fabric of a diverse nation such as ours. They breed racism, distrust and discrimination.
Ronald H. Weich, a Washington, D.C. attorney who co-authored the report with fellow attorney Carlos Angula, calls racial profiling a self-fulfilling prophecy. ``We know from federal health surveys that blacks and Hispanics are no more likely to be carrying drugs than whites, no more likely to be using drugs than whites. But if you act on the assumption that they are, and disproportionately stop and frisk and search and detain minorities, then just as a statistical matter, if they are carrying drugs in proportion to the numbers in the population then you end up arresting more minorities. This fuels the perception that minorities are disproportionately committing crimes. It's not true.''
The disproportionate arrest of Hispanics and blacks has decimated their communities with disastrous social consequences. It has led to a deep distrust of law enforcement officials and, as a result, to less cooperation with them.
In drug cases, federal prosecutors decide whether to take the case into federal court where mandatory minimum sentencing laws require much more prison time for those convicted, in general, than state courts do. For possessing approximately the same amount of crack cocaine, one can get sentenced to 10 years in prison by a federal court compared to less than a year by a state court. Not surprisingly, federal prosecutors are more likely to demand that blacks and Hispanics be tried in federal courts.
Weich says, ``the constant criminalization of race and racialization of crime fuel the engine of injustice.''
The report compiles existing evidence, analyzes it, and convincingly shows that racism has twisted and distorted the nation's criminal justice system.
Any promise of civil rights and equality under the law dies when a nation's criminal justice system acts upon racist assumptions that target members of minority groups.