Los Angeles Times February 13, 1996

Study Questions Justice System's Racial Fairness

By Greg Krikorian
Times Staff Writer

A staggering 39% of California's African American men in their 20s were in prison, jails or on probation last year, according to a study released Monday.

The report, issued by the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, raises questions about racial equality in arrests, incarcerations and sentencing statewide; its authors conclude that the criminal justice system is discriminatory.

The study's major findings, based on a review of the state's prison, probation and jail statistics, include the following:

  • Nearly four in 10 of the state's young black men were under some form of criminal justice control last year. By comparison, the rate was about one in 10 for young Latino males and one in 20 for white men.

  • While previous studies have suggested that blacks and whites use drugs at about the same rate, African Americans were arrested for drug offenses at about five times the rate of whites during the height of the drug war in 1989.

  • African Americans are charged under California's "three-strikes" law at 17 times the rate of whites in Los Angeles and 13 times the rate of whites in San Francisco.

  • The so-called "war on drugs" has greatly accelerated the incarceration of young African American women, who are serving criminal justice sentences in California at rates close to that of white men. The number of black women imprisoned for drug-related offenses rose from 55 in 1984 to 1,006 a decade later. About 3% of African American women in their 20s are under the control of the state's criminal justice system compared to 5% of white men in the same age group.

  • At almost every stage of the criminal justice process, whites fare better than African Americans or Latinos. One-third of whites who are first-time offenders had charges reduced compared to one-quarter of blacks and Latinos. White first offenders also received rehabilitative placements in the community at twice the rate of African Americans and Latinos. And prison sentences for drug offenses were harsher for blacks and Latinos than whites: Latinos went to prison at twice the rate of whites; African Americans one-third more frequently.

    "The data supports disparity at every level of the criminal justice system," said center Executive Director Vincent Schiraldi, who coauthored the report with the center's Sue Kuyper and Sharen Hewitt.

    Civil rights leaders said the report was a revealing indictment of racism in law enforcement.

    "If you want to know why the African American community does not trust the judicial system, take a look at this report," Constance Rice of the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund said at a news conference in Los Angeles, where the report was released. A similar event took place in San Francisco, where the center is headquartered.

    Using figures from the state Department of Corrections, the liberal, nonprofit organization said it calculated the percentage of the total prison and parole population for each racial and gender group from the ages of 20 to 29. Because specific demographic data was not available for probation or local jail populations, the center said it used the corrections department percentages to estimate numbers for each category of criminal justice control and each group by race and gender.

    And to determine previous criminal background, the report relied on so-called self-reporting data in which people of all races are surveyed about their brushes with the criminal justice system.

    The study was funded by the Van Loben Cels Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation.

    The center's findings parallel other studies in recent years, including a 1995 national report by the Sentencing Project, a left-leaning criminal justice think tank. It reported that at any one time, more than 30% of the nation's black men in their 20s were in prison, on probation or on parole. The figure compared to 6.7% for whites and just over 12% for Latinos.

    Although he had not yet seen the new study, Allan Abrahamse, a mathematician in the Rand Corp's. Criminal Justice Program, said he was not surprised by its numbers.

    "I can't vouch for the report, but it is basically consistent with everything I know about crime statistics," he said. "No matter what [report] you look at, blacks are overrepresented."

    At the same time, however, Abrahamse said factors other than discrimination can account for the disparity in arrests and imprisonment of blacks. Among those factors, he said, are the types and seriousness of crimes and the places where they are committed--for example, the street sales of crack cocaine to African Americans versus the more clandestine sale of powdered cocaine to white drug users.

    So, Abrahamse said: "It is a leap to say that [the disparity] is completely a sign of racism. There are other factors."

    But Schiraldi contends that if police wanted to arrest more white people, they could do it.

    "If you sent the police into white neighborhoods with the same [concentration], you would draw a much different conclusion" about who commits crimes, he said.

    "I am not accusing judges or district attorneys of being Ku Klux Klan members. . . . I am talking about a subtler form of institutional racism. And the difference to me is that if four in 10 young white men were under the control of the criminal justice system, we would not be passing 'three-strikes' [laws] or building more prisons. We would be . . . funding education, jobs and drug treatment."

    Indeed, the report notes, the push for more state prisons meant that last year, for the first time ever, state funding for corrections exceeded higher education spending.

    "I think," Schiraldi said, "as we build prisons instead of universities, we are really writing a script well into the future. And it is a pretty ugly script."

    Responding to the report that blacks are far more frequently prosecuted in Los Angeles under "three-strikes" laws than are whites, Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said the office had no idea how that conclusion had been reached.

    "We don't know where the numbers are coming from because we don't keep track of cases by race," Gibbons said. "When we file a case, race is not a factor we consider."

    Schiraldi responded that the numbers were based on a 1995 report by the Los Angeles County public defender's office.

    Nevertheless, the NAACP's Rice and others, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), portrayed the report as proof that the state's criminal justice system is anything but colorblind.

    "This study is a clarion call," Waters said at the news conference here. "It warns us that we are risking an entire generation of African American young men.

    "If we, in fact, continue to send young black males to prison in these numbers, we will have more than a majority of them back in our neighborhoods. With no skills. No jobs. No decent quality of life. And when that happens, you have more crime, you have more unrest," she said.

    Already, the report says, there is evidence that the very methods aimed at curbing crime in inner cities--more arrests, more and tougher sentences - have failed.

    "Be very clear, we are not saying that violent criminals shouldn't go to prison," the NAACP's Rice said.


    Race and Prison

    A study released Monday points out the the disparity between whites and African Americans when it comes to arrests and incarceration in California.

                                        Blacks  Whites
    Percentage of general population      7%     53%
    Percentage of those arrested         18%     35%
    Percentage of prison population      32%     29%
    Source: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

    [End of first newspaper article]

    [The San Francisco Chronicle published another story on the same study the same day:]

    Racial Gap in Sentences Growing - New Figures Show Blacks Jailed More

    by Clarence Johnson
    Chronicle Staff Writer

    Nearly forty percent of African American men in their 20s in California are imprisoned, on parole or on probation, a rate nearly eight times higher than for whites, according to a disturbing criminal justice study released yesterday.

    That rate for young blacks is the highest in the nation. In the same age group, only 5 percent of whites and 11 percent of Latinos in California are under the control of the criminal justice system, said the report.

    Vincent Schiraldi, the author of the study, attributed the high numbers for black men to tougher punishment for the use of crack cocaine than for other drugs; stricter sentencing laws; the prison construction boom; and poverty, lack of good jobs, and poor education in inner cities.

    "Conscious or not, it is difficult to imagine the war on crime being waged with this vehemence if middle class white males were similarly affected," said Schiraldi, who is executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco-based public policy organization.

    In practically every aspect of criminal justice in California, blacks fared worse than other ethnic groups, whole whites fared better. Among other things, the report found:

    Although blacks make up nearly one third of the prison population, they constitute only 18 percent of those arrested. At the same time, whites make up 53 percent of those arrested, but less than 30 percent of the state's inmates.

    Nearly 60 percent of black inmates are serving time for nonviolent offenses.

    One third of white first offenders had their charges reduced, while only one quarter of African Americans and Latinos were given similar considerations.

    In addition, the report discovered that the number of state prisoners jumped 44 percent in five years, rising from 94,000 inmates to 135,000 since 1990.

    On hand for release of the study were San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and District Attorney Terrence Hallinan, and Assembly woman Barbara Lee D-Oakland who said they are alarmed by the findings. They called for a task force to seek ways to remedy the problem locally.

    "We are drowning in the process of trying to incarcerate back people," said Brown, blasting efforts by Governor Wilson to build more prisons. "You don t have to be a genius to know there is something strange in these results,"

    More than an indictment of the criminal justice system, Brown said, the figures sharply criticize a network of agencies that for decades have failed to educate, train and employ young black men at the same rate as other ethnic groups.

    An Unfair Burden

    Hallinan pledged to support alternative programs to incarceration and reiterated his campaign promise to limit prosecution under the "three strikes and you're out" law to serious violent offenders.

    "The criminal justice system is putting an unfair burden on minorities - African Americans in particular," Hallinan said. "It is not working properly for anybody. If an inappropriate number of African Americans is going to jail, then an inappropriate number of everybody is going to jail. And that should worry us."

    Plans to Blunt '3-Strikes'

    For her part, lee promised to introduce legislation designed to make inmate rehabilitation a par of the criminal code, as well as measures to blunt the "three strikes" law-including a measure that would prevent juvenile measures from being used as a "strike."

    The state prison budget has increased by 10 percent under Wilson, and a string of new prisons is being planned for the next 10 years, Lee said.

    "That's outrageous," she declared. "We are guaranteeing that young people will be going to prison but not to college. People need to be angry about that."

    Yesterday's report, "Young African Americans and the Criminal Justice System in California: Five years Later," was released simultaneously in San Francisco and Los Angeles. It comes in the wake of a study released by the Washington-based National Sentencing Project which shows that in the past five years the number of young blacks under some form of criminal control has jumped from 25 percent to nearly 33 percent.

    "Every time we build a prison, we know that half the cells will be filled by black inmates and 15 percent by Latinos," said project director Marc Mauer, "we are not talking about serial rapists. We are talking about people committing offenses who should have choices other than prison."



    Back to the Articles page.

    This URL: http://www.pdxnorml.org/LAT_Racial_Fairness_021396.html