Race and Criminal Justice

by Jared Feldman

PREAMBLE: Recognizing the responsibility of government at all levels to act forcefully to prevent crime, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) historically has advocated crime fighting strategies that include both strict enforcement measures and intervention initiatives designed to prevent violence (JCPA Policy on Crime and Violence adopted June, 1995). In recent years, we have welcomed statistics that indicate the rate of serious crime has declined steadily. We are concerned, however, about the expanding body of evidence that racial inequities continue to plague our justice system. To the degree that problems exist, we must call upon our political leadership and public officials to move with deliberate speed toward the amelioration of such conditions and the institution of appropriate reforms.

The Jewish community understands from its own history the destructiveness of being marked for disparate treatment based on ethnicity, religion, or race. We are, moreover, impelled by the teachings of our faith to be active in building a just society. Even as the words in Deuteronomy 16:20 command: “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” the sages tell us that the word “justice” (tzedek) is repeated to remind us that we must also be just in the way that we pursue justice. In our zeal to prevent crime, our nation must also ensure that no one is unjustly accused, convicted, or punished.

BACKGROUND: Charges of racial disparity are not limited to any single part of the Criminal or Juvenile Justice system but are found at every stage of the process. Foremost among complaints are police harassment and brutality, sentencing disparity, racial profiling, and the disparate application of the death penalty.

Police Harassment and Brutality: Police in this country have an overall good record in providing public protection, have a difficult and dangerous job to do, and often must defend themselves against potential violence from criminals they confront. Nevertheless, reports of law-abiding members of minority populations subjected to police mistreatment ranging from racial and ethnic profiling and hostility to brutality to tragic instances of excessive or even deadly force have raised public awareness of this long simmering concern. Although most officers do a good job, cases involving excessive use of force have contributed to a widening gap between police and the communities they serve. Initiatives to improve police/community relations should increase public awareness of the problems faced daily by police and must also provide police with better training to bring greater sensitivity to their dealings with community residents. Police also need improved disciplinary procedures for dealing with issues of misconduct, and broader community outreach and recruitment initiatives.

Sentencing Disparity: Minority group members are enmeshed in the criminal justice process – from arrest to sentencing to incarceration – in numbers heavily disproportionate to their percentage in the general population. Studies suggest this may not reflect the difference in the rates at which whites and minorities commit crimes but rather disparities in police enforcement of criminal laws. For example, minority individuals are arrested for drug crimes far more frequently than whites, despite studies suggesting that the rate of drug use among whites and minorities is similar. Further, minority defendants are convicted of drug offenses and sentenced to prison at higher rates and for longer terms than white defendants. The disparity in sentencing of crack and of powder cocaine users contributes to these disproportionate rates. Under current federal law, possession of more than five grams of crack cocaine triggers a mandatory minimum sentence for a first offense of five years in prison. Possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine triggers the same sentence. The impact of this disparity has fallen principally on minorities, who are predominant among crack cocaine defendants. Other drug sentencing laws that mandate stiff prison sentences for first offenders also contribute to the disparate incarceration of minorities.

Juvenile Justice: Several recent studies suggest that minority youth are over-represented at every stage of the justice system. They are disproportionately targeted for arrest in the war on drugs despite data suggesting that drug use rates among white, black, and Hispanic youths are about the same, and are similarly targeted for non-drug-related crimes. Minority youths also are more likely than white youths to be placed in juvenile detention facilities. Moreover, according to a report by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, despite the fact that the majority of juvenile arrests involve whites, three out of every four youths waived to the adult system and sentenced to prisons are minorities. Although a provision in federal law requires that disproportionate minority confinement be analyzed and addressed when it does exist, that measure has remained largely unenforced.

Death Penalty: Studies show racial bias and poverty continue to play a role in determining who is sentenced to death in our nation. Notwithstanding the JCPA’s longstanding position opposing the death penalty, it is a fact that the death penalty is a reality at the federal level and in many states. In 1997, the American Bar Association called for a death penalty moratorium until issues of fairness, impartiality, and the risk of error are resolved. To date, there has been little response nationally to that call. (See JCPA Resolution on the Death Penalty).

Racial and Ethnic Profiling: A major factor contributing to racial and ethnic disparity in police stops, arrests, prosecution and punishment is the discriminatory profiling of individuals as criminal suspects based on race, ethnicity, or other factors. At its 2000 Plenum, the JCPA adopted a resolution registering its unequivocal opposition to the practice of racial profiling.

Finally, a corollary issue requiring the nation’s attention is the substantial and continuing increase in the prison population, now exceeding two million and disproportionately composed of minority individuals. The United States has by far the highest incarceration rate of any democratic nation. The use of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses has played a major role in this growth. The practice of imprisoning people who are non-violent not only wastes lives, but consumes massive public resources sorely needed for more productive purposes. Federal and state policies should be modified to include alternatives to incarceration in order to reduce the number of non-violent prison inmates. Public resources re-directed from prisons to community and drug treatment programs can be effective both in creating better social conditions and in reducing crime.

ACTION PRIORITIES

In recognition of these concerns, the JCPA has:

  • Supported the call for a death penalty moratorium until issues of fairness, impartiality, and the risk of error are resolved; and
  • Registered and herein reaffirms its unequivocal opposition to the practice of racial and ethnic profiling as not only unfair but detrimental to democracy.

The JCPA further resolves to:

  • Support measures to improve police/community relations, to familiarize all sides with cultural diversity and enable them to better understand minority sensitivities and also the difficult job required of police, such as:
  1. Greater efforts to recruit, hire, and also promote minority police officers;
  2. Measures to ensure accountability of offending officers and supervising officials;
  3. Initiatives to provide enhanced training and continuing education of all police department employees;
  4. Programs that encourage officers to develop close ties to the neighborhoods they serve; and
  5. Funding by Congress of measures within the Crime Control Act of 1994 that provide for the accurate collection of comprehensive national data on the use of excessive force by police, including data on people killed or injured by police shootings or other types of force.
  • Speak out against incidents and patterns of police harassment and brutality;
  • Reaffirm opposition to excessive or indiscriminate use of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, in keeping with the JCPA Policy on Crime and Violence;
  • Call for repeal of state and federal laws that require mandatory incarceration of first-time drug offenders, for remedying the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine offenses, increased government and community support for effective substance abuse and education programs, and for the restoration of judicial discretion in these cases;
  • Call for the state and federal laws that require mandatory incarceration of first-time drug offenders, for remedying the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses, increasing government and community support for effective substance abuse and education programs, and for the restoration of judicial discretion in these cases;
  • Call on government officials and especially juvenile correctional systems to treat juveniles without regard to race or ethnicity at all phases of juvenile proceedings;
  • Call for full enforcement of the existing federal mandate that disproportionate minority confinement of juveniles must be analyzed and addressed, when found to exist, and for the application of penalties required by law against those systems that fail to fulfill that mandate;
  • Encourage constituent agencies to work with state and local agencies as well as other coalition partners to document disparate treatment of minorities and the poor, to study its causes, to educate the community about this issue, and to work to eliminate such disparities; and
  • Call for redirection of public resources from prisons to community and substance abuse programs that can be effective in creating better social conditions and reducing crime.

About the Author


Jared Feldman