April 12, 2012
Race and Justice News
Research: Appeal to put race at the center of the study of crime and justice
Research: Justice for all? Half of Americans don’t think so.
Legislation: Pending legislation in Vermont would exam racial bias in sentencing
Legislation: Attempt to mandate racial impact studies for CT legislation fails
Prisons: Racial bias in jail screening instrument may limit access to diversion resources
Policing: Police assistance to disadvantaged neighborhoods
The Courts: Judicial discretion reduces racial disparities in Federal sentencing
This year’s winner of the American Society of Criminology’s Edwin H. Sutherland Award, Ruth Peterson, appealed to criminology to put race at the center of the study of crime and justice. She notes the long-standing disparities in crime and criminal justice patterns across race and ethnic groups. She also points out that the racial hierarchy is held in place by segregation and related mechanisms which explain why crime is low in white areas and high in black areas. Peterson goes on to argue that the criminal justice system is part of a racialized social structure that helps to create and re-create the very problems it seeks to solve. As examples, she notes that the growth of incarceration contributes to and exacerbates social inequality by differentially altering the life chances for people of different racial backgrounds, by reproducing joblessness among black males, and by limiting voting and political participation among racial minorities. It is her beliefthat if we ignore race and ethnicity as central to understanding crime and justice, wewill “continue to rely on narrow criminal justice solutions that many are comfortable with, but which leave many crime problems unaddressed…”.
A poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News found that only half of all Americans think blacks and other minorities receive the same treatment as whites in the criminal justice system. About half of whites say minorities are not treated equitably, a figure that jumps far higher — to more than eight in 10 — among African Americans.
Only 1% of Vermont’s population is African American, yet blacks account for 10% of Vermont’s prison population. A number of studies in Vermont have examined traffic stops and roadside searches as a possible source of racial bias. A new study, contained in a bill that received overwhelming preliminary approval by the House, would look at possible bias in sentencing.
The Connecticut legislature conducted a public hearing on a proposal that would require legislative committees to have the Office of Legislative Research prepare racial and ethnic impact statements for all bills. The measure was defeated in Committee.
Connecticut previously passed legislation making it the second state to create a rule allowing state legislative committees to require the non-partisan Office of Legislative Research to prepare a racial and ethnic impact statement for any bill that would affect the size of the prison population. According to the Office of Policy and Management, this optional assessment is underutilized. The proposal that was defeated would have made racial and ethnic impact statements mandatory.
The Brief Jail Mental Health Screen (BJMHS) is an eight-item questionnaire used in some jails to screen for mental health problems -- a first step in accessing jail diversion resources. Six of the BJMHS questions ask about symptoms and two ask about past treatment for mental health problems. Individuals who answer yes to either treatment question are an “automatic positive”; otherwise two symptoms are required to screen positive. According to Seth Prins and his colleagues in Criminal Justice and Behavior, this gives considerable weight to the prior use of mental health services in predicting current mental health problems. African Americans are disadvantaged by this because of barriers they face in accessing mental health care, a disadvantage which biased screening instruments potentially perpetuate.
Past research shows that blacks, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods, receive inferior police protection and experience high rates of police scrutiny, arrests and use of force. Such experiences are believed to lead to a distrust of the police. As a result, some have argued that residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods are relatively unlikely to call the police. A recent study in Crime and Delinquency found that, to the contrary, people in disadvantaged neighborhoods rely on police for assistance as much as, if not more than, people elsewhere.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission stirred controversy in 2010 when it reported that disparity in the length of sentences blacks and whites receive increased following the Booker decision, a Supreme Court decision which restored sentencing discretion to judges. Other researchers have since provided additional context to this finding, showing that disparity primarily stems from whites being more likely to receive probation than blacks, and also to blacks being more likely to be charged with crimes carrying mandatory minimum penalties. A new study by Joshua B. Fischman and Max M. Schanzenbach reported as Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No.2 2012-02 shows that when judges have greater discretion in sentencing, mandatory minimum sentences become even more significant. The authors conclude that “judicial discretion does not contribute to, and may in fact mitigate, racial disparities in [Federal Sentencing] Guidelines.”