November 15, 2011
RACE & JUSTICE NEWS
United States Sentencing Commission assesses impact of mandatory minimums
A new 645-page report by the United States Sentencing Commission examines the impact of mandatory minimum penalties on federal sentencing, the first such assessment since the Commission’s examination of this issue in 1991. The Commission concludes that “certain mandatory minimums apply too broadly, are excessively severe, and are applied inconsistently.”
The Commission’s analysis also includes an assessment of the racial dynamics of mandatory sentencing. African-American offenders were subject to mandatory minimum penalties at a higher rate (65.1%) than were white (53.5%) and Hispanic (44.3%) offenders. Furthermore, African-American offenders received relief from mandatory minimums at a lower rate (34.9%) than did white (46.5%) and Hispanic (55.7%) offenders.
SPOTLIGHT ON RESEARCH
African-American children less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol
The News and Observer reports on a study led by Duke University that finds that African-American adolescents are less likely than white adolescents to use or become dependent upon drugs or alcohol. Approximately 9 percent of white children between the ages of 12 and 17 used drugs or alcohol at a level indicating dependency, compared to 5 percent of African-Americans. Asian and Pacific Islander children demonstrated the least amount of dependence, at a rate of 3.5 percent, while Native American children had the highest rate of dependence, at 15 percent.
The study analyzed confidential federal surveys of 72,561 adolescent children from 2005 through 2008. The findings appear in the November issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.
Study finds correlation between race and corrections spending
A study by Christian Breunig and Rose Ernst in the journal Race and Justice concludes that race plays a role in increased corrections spending: “the higher the proportion of African-Americans in a state, the higher the prioritization of corrections spending.” Further, when the proportion of African-Americans in a given state is relatively low, the authors find that income inequality becomes a factor in corrections spending.
The authors “find strong evidence for the impact of racial threat and inequality, rather than political institutional variables upon state decision makers’ priorities.” Moreover, the study finds that racial threat functions no matter the class status of the African-American population. Race serves as the primary “cleavage” while class serves as a secondary “cleavage” when the African-American population is relatively low.
Racial disparities and perceptions of legitimacy of law strongly related
A review of relevant literature by Michael Rocque in Race and Justice attempts to uncover the relationship between racial disparities in criminal justice contact and perceptions of legitimacy of the law. Rocque’s hypothesis is that inequitable treatment in the criminal justice system undermines the legitimacy of the system, thus leading to an increase in criminal behavior, creating a cycle of disparity and criminal activity. The author argues that this is indeed the case: numerous previous studies indicate a multidirectional relationship between racial disparity in criminal justice and perception of the system’s legitimacy.
IN THE COURTS
Supreme Court declines to hear case on race in death penalty sentencing
As reported in the Christian Science Monitor, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case of Duane Edward Buck, whose lawyers argued that prosecutors inappropriately used race as a factor when trying to convince the jury to impose the death penalty. Buck’s lawyers claimed that prosecutors violated his rights to due process and equal protection when they asked a psychologist to “repeat his conclusion in a report that African-Americans were statistically more likely to commit a violent crime in the future and pose a danger to the community.”
Justices Sotomayor and Kagan announced that they had voted to hear the case because of the “racial overtones” used by the prosecution. However, Justices Alito, Scalia, and Breyer issued a statement defending their reasoning for denying the case: according to them, the defense lawyers were the first to bring up race as an issue in the case and thus only had themselves to blame.
African-American judge allowed to hear North Carolina Racial Justice Act case
According to The Associated Press, Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks will be permitted to hear the first case brought under a North Carolina law that allows death row prisoners to challenge their sentences on the grounds of racial bias. Judge Quentin T. Sumner denied a request by prosecutors that Judge Weeks, who is African-American, be removed from hearing the case. The prosecutors’ motion asked that Weeks be removed because he may be called to testify as a witness in the Racial Justice Act case. Lawyers for Weeks and Marcus Robinson, the defendant in the case, argued that replacing Weeks would allow lawyers to remove judges from cases simply by subpoenaing them to appear as witnesses. According to Judge Sumner, the prosecution did not provide enough evidence that Judge Weeks’ testimony would be significant.
The Racial Justice Act was enacted as a result of scrutiny over the racial disparity among persons sentenced to death in North Carolina. A study by professors at Michigan State University found that a defendant in North Carolina is two and a half times more likely to receive the death penalty when at least one of the victims is white. The study also found that of the 159 persons on death row, 31 had all-white juries at trial and 38 had juries with only one African-American or Latino juror.
ACLU urges Justice Department to curb FBI racial profiling powers
The ACLU released FBI documents that detail a sweeping program of racial profiling in recent years. The ACLU charges that FBI agents have targeted Arab-American communities as potential breeding grounds for terrorist activities, African-American communities as areas of prospective “Black Separatist” activity, Chinese and Russian communities for possible organized crime syndicates, and Latino communities for potentially harboring Central American gangs.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, the ACLU argued that the documents reveal illegal breaches of the Constitution by the FBI and asked the Attorney General to bar such practices.
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