Unequal Justice

The American system of jurisprudence is supposed to be based on the lofty notion that someone accused of a crime is presumed innocent, that he will be tried by a jury of his peers and that the courts will do whatever is necessary to prevent the innocent from going to prison or to his death.

But that lofty notion rarely is translated into reality.

Selective enforcement and prosecution of the law have conspired to create a system in which justice is rare, especially for young black and Latino males.

The "war on drugs" has been a prime culprit, resulting in the mass imprisonment of African-Americans and other minorities on relatively minor drug charges. Despite representing just 12 percent of the US population and 13 percent of US drug users, African-Americans represent 70 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses.

Add to this the problem of location: Bad things happen everywhere, but the laws are enforced more strictly in certain areas -- like large cities. Baltimore, for instance, is much more likely to face a police crackdown on the use of crack or other drugs than a middle class college campus, even though the level of drug abuse might be higher on campus. This leads to a greater proportion of African-Americans being picked up for drug use.

The racial disparity in arrest rates points this out. The National Criminal Justice Commission, a Washington advocacy group, found that almost one in three African-American men between the ages of 20 and 29 is under criminal justice supervision on any given day. In Baltimore, the figure is 56 percent; in Washington, D.C., it is 42 percent; and in a single year in Los Angeles, one-third spend time behind bars.

The NCJC acknowledges that crimes rates are higher in poor minority communities, but not high enough to explain the disparity, especially because rates of offending in middle-class minority communities are the same as the general population. Racial disparities are better explained, according to the NCJC, by varying enforcement practices, such as the targeted drug sweeps being employed in New York and other big cities.

And once they enter the system, money and race aggravate an already bad situation. For instance, blacks are three times more likely to be arrested, but seven times more likely to end up in jail. The NCJC says that as "minorities move through the system, they encounter slightly harsher treatment at every step. Marginal disparities at arrest are combined with marginal disparities at the bail decision, the charging decision, the verdict and the sentence -- by the end of the process, the disparity is considerable."

Among the reasons: African-Americans tend to be poorer and have to rely on overworked and often inexperienced public defenders (contrast this with the expensive defense teams that O.J. Simpson, Klaus Von Bulow and the Menendez brothers were able to hire). And the lack of urban job prospects and economic security make judges less likely to grant bail or to impose lighter sentences.

And it tends to start "a vicious cycle," the NCJC says. "A person arrested once is branded an ex-offender for life. The person is pointed to as an example of how many people in the neighborhood are bad, or how many are repeat offenders. Having a criminal record also makes it more difficult to find a job."

The bail issue, in particular, can have a devastating impact on the ultimate outcome of a defendant's case. Defendants cannot work and have limited access to drug treatment if they are locked up, meaning they can't point to those things during sentencing as positive steps, making it less likely that a judge will look upon them with favor. And because they are behind bars, they often settle for the first deal offered, and not necessarily for the best one they can get.

These problems strike at the heart of the way our criminal justice system functions, but they do not explain the general lack of faith in the system among all segments of society. For this, we can blame the way the media -- both on the nightly news shows and on television cop dramas like NYPD Blue and so-called reality shows like Cops -- has altered the way we look at the American landscape, making it appear more dangerous than it really is. Less than 2 percent of the 11 million arrests made annually are for violent crimes such as rape and murder, but the nightly news is filled with a smorgasbord of violence.

This disconnect has helped create a skeptical audience, one ready to support three-strikes laws, mandatory sentencing and a host of other tough-on-crime measures pushed by pandering politicians that end up incarcerating more and more minority youth. And just as important, this skepticism, especially when combined with racial and ethnic bias, infects the jury pool and the judiciary and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for young black men to get a fair trial, perpetuating the cycle.

Hank Kalet it a poet and newspaper editor living in Central New Jersey. He can be contacted via e-mail at

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