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August , 2018
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(From The Sentencing Project)

Policing

Black Bostonians comprised 63% of police-civilian encounters between 2007 and 2010 although blacks made up 24% of the city’s population, according to the report “Black, Brown and Targeted” by the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts. The report presents preliminary analyses of Boston Police Department (BPD) records prepared by former BPD Policy Advisor Anthony Braga. Braga’s team examined more than 200,000 Field Interrogation, Observation, Frisk and/or Search (FIOFS) Reports which are made when police officers observed, stopped, interrogated, frisked, or searched an individual without making an arrest. They found that racial disparities persisted even after controlling for neighborhood crime rates, prior arrest records, and alleged gang affiliation. The report also states that officers did not provide legitimate reasons for the encounter in 75% of cases and shows that only 2.5% of these encounters resulted in seizure of contraband.

“The BPD’s practices between 2007 and 2010 were arguably even more racially skewed than the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) tactics ruled unconstitutional in 2013 by a federal court,” the report states. The report also notes that while police encounters with Latinos are likely to be under-reported, neighborhoods with larger Hispanic populations had more BPD encounters. While Commissioner William Evans defended the police department’s dedication to safety, he also acknowledged the racial disparity and noted that the BPD has since updated its procedures and trainings, reports the Boston Globe.

The ACLU of Minnesota’s analysis of Minneapolis Police Department records shows that blacks were more likely to be arrested than whites for low-level non-violent offenses in that city between 2004 and 2012. Hennepin County Circuit Judge Kevin Burke and colleagues have called upon their community to recognize and address this problem. They note: “A lot of these cases were eventually dismissed.… But some people still lose their jobs because an arrest causes them to miss work or the housing they seek is denied, because after an arrest they have a ‘record.’”

USA Today has examined arrest rates at 3,538 police departments across the country and found racial disparity in 95% of departments, Brad Heath reports. News outlets across the country are using the interactive report to measure local arrest disparities.

Marijuana Reforms

Will Decriminalization and Legalization End Racially Disparate Enforcement?

The New York City Police Department will no longer make arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, reports the New York Times. Instead, these cases will be treated as non-criminal offenses subject to a fine rather than jail time. This is a significant shift in a city where stop-and-frisk policing has generated tens of thousands of arrests each year for low-level marijuana possession among people of color. However, experts worry that this policy does not go far enough to remedy unfair policing practices and may still impose problematic consequences on those who are ticketed.

First, the new policy does not propose to reduce the racial gap between marijuana enforcement – largely focused on people of color – and marijuana use – equal across races. It will also reduce transparency in marijuana law enforcement since data on race and ethnicity are not systematically tracked and reported for summonses issued for civil offenses. Second, as Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson has stated, current summons courts procedures raise “serious due process concerns” since indigent defendants are given little to no opportunity to confer with attorneys before their case is called. These problems will be exacerbated as summons courts struggle to handle a large influx of cases. Finally, while convictions for quality-of-life offenses do not result in criminal records, they are a matter of public record and may hinder eligibility for public housing, citizenship, and more. Low-income defendants who cannot pay their fines will face a civil judgment, and those who fail to appear in court be issued an arrest warrant.

The Philadelphia City Council also recently approved a measure to turn possession of small amounts of marijuana into a civil penalty. In the midterm elections, residents of Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C. voted to legalize the drug.

Yet while marijuana decriminalization and legalization reduces the number of arrests, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice’s study of marijuana arrests in five states that have implemented major reforms finds that “staggering racial disparities remain – and in some cases are exacerbated – following marijuana reforms.”

State Punitiveness

Black Population Size Predicts State Punitiveness

States with larger black populations are more punitive as measured by their juvenile justice policies and their rates of incarceration, finds an article in Criminal Justice Policy Review. In “Explaining Dimensions of State-Level Punitiveness in the United States: The Roles of Social, Economic, and Cultural Factors,” authors Katharine A. Neill, Juita-Elina (Wie) Yusuf, and John C. Morris develop a multidimensional measure of punitiveness that moves beyond incarceration rates. Based on data largely from 2002-2007, the study found that the size of the black population was the most frequent predictor of state punitiveness, even after controlling for crime rates. Yet black population size did not affect two measures of punitiveness: punishing immorality (such arrests for prostitution and gambling) and political and symbolic punishment (such as felon disenfranchisement laws). Overall, the findings suggest that “for states with large Black populations, the White citizenry may be more likely to support policies that will adversely affect Blacks as a way to control and contain this population, which it perceives as threatening.”

Tanya N. Whittle and Karen F. Parker’s study, “Public Ideology, Minority Threat, and Felony Collateral Sanctions: A State-Level Analysis” in Criminal Justice Review, examines state differences in collateral sanctions. The authors assess state-level variation in barriers to employment, voting, public benefits, and public housing. They find that black population size – but not Latino population size or public punitiveness – is related to greater collateral sanctions, though not as strongly as conservatism.

Legislative Reforms

Crack Sentencing and the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits

In September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1010, The California Fair Sentencing Act. The legislation eliminates the disparity in sentencing, probation, and asset forfeiture guidelines for possession of crack cocaine for sale versus the same crime involving powder cocaine.

Significant racial disparities were observed among those convicted of crack cocaine offenses. From 2005 to 2010, 98% of those sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale were people of color, according to data from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In a 2011 report, The Sentencing Project found that California was one of 13 states that imposed a sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The others were Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Vermont, and Virginia. In recent years, five other states – Iowa, Connecticut, Missouri, Ohio, and South Carolina – have moved to modify their sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. California’s law takes effect in January.

California has also recently agreed to end race-based punishment in prisons as part of a legal settlement. This summer, the state also ended its ban on food stamps for people with felony drug convictions, while Missouri modified its lifetime ban.

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