Inequality in the Criminal Justice System

Condensed and edited by Katharine Reece MFA ’12

In 1990, one in four black men between the ages of 21 and 29 was incarcerated or on parole or probation. Among all black men born since the mid-1960s, more than 20 percent will go to prison—twice the number that will graduate college.

Authorities argue that this mass incarceration is effective in stopping crime, but why are black people incarcerated so much more often than white people, even though the groups commit offenses at similar rates?

President Reagan’s expansion of the War on Drugs in the 1980s included Operation Pipeline, which encouraged law enforcement to stop anyone they deemed suspicious and search them for drugs. This opened the door for local police to implement stop-and-frisk policies, which can easily lead to racial profiling. In New York City, about 684,000 people were stopped in 2011, and the overwhelming majority were black or Latino.

The assumptions that undergird this discrimination have deep and tangled roots reaching back through the centuries of slavery in America. In Vanessa Agard-Jones’ sociology course “Racial Americana,” students explored narratives of racial domination, and on April 19 they focused on dismantling the biases they perceived in the criminal justice system, asking themselves, “What can we do next?”

Under Discussion

Slavery by Another Name, directed by Sam Pollard (2012), a documentary based on Douglas A. Blackmon’s eponymous, Pulitzer Prize-winning book; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (New Press, 2010)

Dahlia Stone ’16: [In 2001 in] Portugal, [the government] put more money into really taking care of addictions and helping people out [instead of devoting resources to prosecuting and imprisoning drug addicts] and then all of a sudden prison rates just dropped—compared to the United States where rates were just going up. And all [our money] went into getting people into prison. After prison, people are so much more likely to reoffend.

Vanessa Agard-Jones: And why do people reoffend, according to Michelle Alexander?

Ali Diemecke ’13: They’re pushed to the margins. They’re restricted; they can’t vote; it’s really hard to get jobs, and even in some cases get an apartment, a place to live, land. So it pushes them … back to the same place they came from—kind of this recurring cycle they get stuck in.

Dan Siegeltuch ’13: It’s not just being in prison that creates the system. It’s what you’re excluded from—the criminal label—that Alexander says is fundamentally part of the structural problem. …

Vanessa Agard-Jones: What are the mechanisms Alexander describes for getting people into the prison pipeline? …

Chelsea Sanchez ’14: It started with Terry v. Ohio, which was a court case that happened in 1968. Basically, the court decided that stopping someone without probable cause is okay (and doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment) if there is reasonable suspicion that the person is about to commit a crime or has a deadly weapon on them. Unfortunately, that’s been subject to the discretion of the police officer and there isn’t a lot of accountability, so it’s grown to this very general stop-and-frisk that you see in a lot of major cities, particularly in New York, where you can get stopped for anything. And it’s highly discriminatory.

Vanessa Agard-Jones: Did anything strike you about how Alexander describes stop-and-frisk practices? …

Nisa Thompson ’16: One of the things that struck me … was this element of consent. After people had been stopped by the police, the police had this attitude like, “Well, you could have just said no. We didn’t have to search you.” Alexander calls attention to how ridiculous that notion is—you’re being stared down by the police, they have guns, they pretty much want to arrest you. You can’t just say, “I’d rather not,” because that makes you look more suspicious. If you’re an African-American, you can’t just say no, because that’s going to make the situation worse. …

Chelsea Sanchez: It made me think of the Miranda rights and how they do have to tell you your rights in that situation. But when it comes to stop-and-frisk, or vehicular searches, they don’t have to. I think that’s an interesting discrepancy in the law.

Yelena Keller ’16: That made me think of my halfbrother, who is much darker than me, and how he gets stopped all the time, and every time he is stopped, he’s … overwhelmingly nervous and is trying to deal with that because he doesn’t want to come off as nervous. … It’s this very warped sense of being labeled a criminal because of the way you look and because of the circumstance—you automatically feel like you’ve done something wrong. … I think there is a battle internally with a lot of African- American people with how to handle this type of situation because it’s almost gotten to a point where you could end up in jail [even] if nothing at all has been done. …

Kat Stephens ’14: Three years ago, I was stopped by police, and I was like, “Me? Why would you stop me? I’m the most chill person.” There is nothing more humiliating than being stopped. No matter what age you are, you’re thinking, “Wait, I’m paying my taxes, I’m a good citizen, why are you stopping me?” … Unfortunately, I will always have a fear when I walk near a police officer, and that’s a feeling that’s horrible to have.

Vanessa Agard-Jones: So people are stopped, they’re frisked, and let’s say they’re found with something. You’re in jail, you’re locked up at Rikers Island, what happens next?

Dan Siegeltuch: Many people don’t have access to a public defender because the system is so saturated and there’s no incentive to become a public defender, [so] there’s not enough to represent all the people who are entering the system. …

Ali Diemecke: [Alexander] says that politicians are trying to show how tough they can be on crime and criminals, so the funding for public defenders and paying people to defend those accused of crime is a low priority.

Vanessa Agard-Jones: For those of you who are thinking about law school, what does it pay to be a public defender?

Class: It doesn’t. (Laughter)

Vanessa Agard-Jones: Right! … Alexander offers us the example that paid court-appointed attorneys charged with representing someone with a felony in Virginia are capped at $428, so for all of the work you might do for a certain person, the most you can earn is $428, which on the scale of billable hours is not much. …

Nisa Thompson: Before I read this book, I always thought, “Oh, well, there’s no real problem with arresting all these people for drugs because they’re probably guilty,” but that’s not it at all.

Vanessa Agard-Jones: That highlights the fact that that’s the wrong question, right? The guilt or innocence of a particular person at the end stage is not the question, according to Alexander. We should be thinking more systemically, pulling back the lens and thinking on a macro level, sociologically and also historically. … And I think one of the questions that we’ve put on the table is whether the prisons that we fund do anything to stem violent crime. … Do you sink money into a system that reproduces the violence you’re seeking to stop, or do you sink money into a system that in theory will open up opportunities for people?