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It's not just Ferguson: America's criminal justice system is racist

Scott Olson

The statement from the Ferguson Police Department is calm and matter-of-fact. "We only ask that any groups wishing to assemble in prayer or in protest do so only during daylight hours in an organized and respectful manner. We further ask all those wishing to demonstrate or assemble disperse well before the evening hours to ensure the safety of the participants and the safety of the community."

It's the "only" that shocks. We only ask that the First Amendment cease to exist at sunset. You suspend your right to protest, and we'll assure your safety. And if you don't? Well, that's left unsaid.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union tried to produce a comprehensive report on the militarization of America's police forces. But they couldn't. "The militarization of policing in the United States has occurred with almost no public oversight," they concluded. "Not a single law enforcement agency in this investigation provided records containing all of the information that the ACLU believes is necessary to undertake a thorough examination of police militarization. Some agencies provided records that were nearly totally lacking in important information. Agencies that monitor and provide oversight over the militarization of policing are virtually nonexistent."

The people charged with protecting us are afraid of what will happen if we know what they're doing.

But the ACLU did discover something worth knowing: after aggregating the reports and data on SWAT raids they could find, they found that the militarized police operations were overwhelmingly aimed at minorities. "Overall, 42 percent of people impacted by a SWAT deployment to execute a search warrant were Black and 12 percent were Latino. This means that of the people impacted by deployments for warrants, at least 54 percent were minorities." (For comparison, 72 percent of Americans identified as white in 2010.) The feel of the police presence is much more militarized in minority communities than white communities.

ACLU swat disparities


There was a time when crime drove American politics. It was a top issue in 1984, and 1988, and 1992. The infamous Willie Horton ad was about race, but it was also about crime. The crack epidemic was ongoing, and murders were rising, and people were afraid. Washington's answer was cops, prisons and harsher sentencing rules.

Today, the crack epidemic is over, the murder rate has fallen, and Americans feel much safer. But cops, prisons and sentencing rules are coming back as an issue. This time, though, they're not seen as the answer. This time they're the problem.

There is no reason to be subtle on this point: the American criminal justice system is racist.

White and black people are similarly likely to use drugs, but black people are 3.6 times likelier to be arrested for drug use than white people — a disparity that has grown much worse in recent years. That's because America's criminal justice system is racist.

US drug arrest rates

Until 2010, triggering the mandatory 5-year sentence for cocaine, which is used more often in the white community, required possession of 100 times as much of the drug as for crack, which is used more heavily in the black community. After the 2010 reforms, the disparity was brought down to a (still huge) 18:1. That's because America's criminal justice system is racist.

Prison sentences for black men tend to be almost 20 percent longer than prison sentences for white men who commit similar crimes. That gap actually widened after 2005, when the Supreme Court gave judges more control over sentencing. That's because the criminal justice system is racist.

sentencing prison

The result is that more than 60 percent of the people in prison are minorities. The Sentencing Project estimates that among black males in their 30s, more than one in 10 is in prison on any given day. That's because our criminal justice system is racist.

New York's stop-and-frisk program gave police the power to stop people on the street for essentially no reason. More than 80 percent of those stopped were black or Latino (and 88 percent of those stopped were not charged with any crime). That's because our criminal justice system is racist.

stop and frisk

Los Angeles police engage in a stop-and-frisk search. (Robert Nickelserg/Getty Images)

African Americans are often hugely underrepresented on police forces. In Ferguson, MO, for instance, the city is 67 percent black, but just three of its 53 police officers are. Incidents of excessive force are commonplace, and increasingly, there's a list of young black men who have died for no other reason than that they ran into a police officer at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The result, as UCLA's Darnell Hunt says, is that "there's a standoff attitude between police and the communities."

Something very dangerous has happened here: we have let the people and the system that's supposed to protect our communities become a threat to some of them. This is not tenable in a democracy; you cannot have the men and women who carry guns be seen as enemies by so many of the people whose taxes pay their salaries.

We are again entering a period in American politics where the criminal justice is a central issue. But this time, cops and prisons and sentencing laws aren't the answer. They're being seen as the problem. And politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize it.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, said in a statement that "we need to de-militarize this situation — this kind of response by the police has become the problem instead of the solution."

In a column for Time magazine, Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, wrote, "given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them."

Prominent politicians ranging from Rand Paul to Paul Ryan to Cory Booker to Dick Durbin to Mike Lee to Barack Obama have started putting forward reforms to the nation's sentencing laws. "When people are in prison, their skills and social networks deteriorate," wrote Ryan in his recent poverty report. "And when they get out, certain laws and business practices make it even harder for them to find a job. In short, having a prison record makes it very difficult to move up the economic ladder. Minority men are much more likely to serve time and therefore feel the weight of these effects."

A lot has gone wrong in our criminal justice system. It's time to fix it.

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