By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
In our series honoring Black History Month, we have commented on a variety of issues—some with celebration and others recognizing that there is still much road ahead of us to racial equality. In the final installment of this series, we discuss the issue of race and criminal justice, which falls in the category of “needs much improvement.”
Statistics and the prevailing research on race and the criminal justice system demonstrate the point that blacks continue to be disproportionately represented in all areas of criminal justice. According to the 2009 Census estimates blacks comprise about 20% of Virginia’s population and non-Hispanic whites just over 65%. In contrast, blacks comprise over 60% of the state’s incarcerated population. The Sentencing Project calculates that the imprisonment rate of blacks in Virginia is 2.3%, while just 0.4% for whites. Among those incarcerated, blacks outnumber whites nearly six to one.
The statistics are dramatic. There are various reasons to explain the disparity. Some might even go so far as to claim that blacks just commit more crimes. Such prejudice aside, we should all acknowledge that at least part of the problem is unequal enforcement. The “war on drugs” illustrates this point.
According to Human Rights Watch, “blacks and whites engage in drug offenses—possession and sales—at roughly comparable rates. But because black drug offenders are the principal targets in the “war on drugs,” the burden of drug arrests and incarceration falls disproportionately on black men and women, their families and neighborhoods.” In Virginia, HRW found blacks were arrested on drug charges at a rate of more than four times that of whites.
Not only is there a disparity in the arrest phase, but the problem persists into the sentencing phase as well. National mandatory minimum sentencing laws established in the 1980s created harsh, divergent penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Although pharmacologically the same substance, the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity was 100:1. This means that it would take 100 times more powder cocaine to get the same sentence for an offense as one would receive for a crack cocaine offense. The sentencing disparity disproportionately affects blacks who are more often arrested for crack offenses than whites. It wasn’t until recently that Congress leveled the playing field somewhat by reducing the crack and powder sentencing disparity to 18:1 with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010.
Black youth do not fair much better in the criminal justice system. The 2000 Census finds that blacks make up 23% of Virginia’s juvenile population and whites about 64%. And according to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, in 2002, nearly 60% of the juveniles who were committed to juvenile correctional centers were black, while 36.5% were white.
Unequal enforcement is also exemplified by “driving while black” or “driving while brown.” Police are more likely to stop blacks and Latinos than whites. Although much anecdotal information exists in Virginia, the statistics are hard to come by since law enforcement doesn’t collect demographic data on traffic stops.
A look at our neighbors, however, shows that racial profiling is a problem in the region. The ACLU of West Virginia reports that, “drivers who are perceived to be racial and ethnic minorities (i.e. African-American or Latino) are 1.5 times more likely to be stopped. Once stopped, they are 2.5 times more likely to have their vehicles searched, even though (the same study showed) minority drivers are actually less likely to have anything illegal in their possession than their Caucasian counterparts.”
The Baltimore Sun reported in October 2010 that race continued to play a role in traffic stops in Maryland. While 63% of Maryland’s residents are white and 30% are black, white motorists were stopped about 52% of the time and blacks, 38%. These statistics changed very little from 2002, despite a lawsuit by the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP against the Maryland State Police for racial profiling.
The North Carolina Highway Traffic Study found that, “across the state as a whole, African-Americans were stopped and cited at higher rates than were whites, relative to their representation as drivers. African-Americans, for example, comprised 21.2 percent of all licensed North Carolina drivers, yet they received 24.9 percent of all citations from troopers in 2000, the data showed.”
All this information shows that racism, as far as the criminal justice system is concerned, is still alive. At every phase, the racial disparity persists. People of color are more often stopped and arrested by law enforcement, and then sentenced more harshly. The problem exists even among youth (see also the school-to-prison pipeline). While the laws may not have been written to treat blacks more harshly, their uneven enforcement has disproportionately impacted blacks.
As a nation we have come a far way in the past century to combat racism and ensure racial equality. It is no longer acceptable to have separate facilities or to degrade people because of the color of their skin. But we still have a fair distance to go to see that every person is treated fairly and equally before the law. In the meanwhile, the ACLU of Virginia will be there every step of the way fighting for every inch of progress in the state that is home to the capital of Confederacy.