Category Archives: Criminal Justice

Unequal Justice

A last word on criminal justice disparities.

I still remember how astonished I was when, some twenty years ago, at a meeting of a small group of executives and government officials of which I was then a part, someone asked “how many of you have ever been stopped for speeding?” Every hand went up. The follow-up question was: “How many of you then had your vehicle searched?” Every black hand went up; no white one did. These were well-educated, well-dressed, well-spoken upper-middle class citizens.

Discriminatory laws are easier to change than the historic social structures and ingrained attitudes that have privileged white citizens and disadvantaged black ones for over two hundred years.

Social change tends to be slow and difficult, and racial disadvantage isn’t just economic. Even when the laws of the land are facially neutral, they are not always neutrally applied. If you are black, and especially if you are poor and black, the justice system you encounter is markedly different—and considerably less just—than the system that governs your Caucasian fellow-citizens.

In 1999, David Cole wrote what has come to be regarded as a seminal work on the issue of equality in the American justice system, No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the Criminal Justice System. The book documented pervasive race- and class-based double standards in criminal justice.

Cole’s unsparing look at the American justice system examined everything from police behavior and jury selection to sentencing; he argued that our system not only fails to live up to the promise of equality, but actually requires double standards to operate. Cole argued that it is the disparities in the system that allow the privileged “to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without paying the costs associated with extending those protections across the board to minorities and the poor.”

In its review of the book, the New York Times said “No Equal Justice makes a strong case that we have tolerated a law enforcement strategy that depends on the exploitation of race and class divisions.”

Although this unequal application of the law falls most heavily on poorer African-Americans, more affluent members of the community are hardly exempt. (There was something of a media firestorm when prominent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates was arrested for “breaking in” to his own home after a trip to China; police initially refused to believe he lived there.)

White America has finally begun to confront the reality of our unequal application of the laws. Thanks to technology and the proliferation of smartphone cameras and other digital recording devices, social media is filled with visual evidence of police conduct that challenges our most cherished beliefs about the maintenance of law and order. Recent books, like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an eye-opening examination of the drug war, have added to the evidence of dysfunction.

Even Congress—in a rare bipartisan effort—has acknowledged the inequities and is attempting to reform the system.

If we are to create a truly equal society—defined as a society that gives its citizens a level playing field and genuinely equal protection of the laws—we must look beyond economic security, important as that is. We also need to ensure that our government institutions are not treating similarly-situated citizens differently based upon the color of their skin rather than upon their behavior.






Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday’s post about the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Baltimore police department contained several suggestions about implementing change. A recent series of articles in the Washington Post pointed to a reform I omitted.

The Justice Department’s investigation of Baltimore police this month rebuked the agency for an entrenched culture of discriminatory policing. Deep within their findings, Justice investigators singled out a core failure: Baltimore’s system for identifying troubled officers was broken and existed in name only.

In Baltimore, Justice found that critical disciplinary records were excluded from its early intervention system, that police supervisors often intervened only after an officer’s behavior became egregious and that when they did, the steps they took were inadequate.

According to the Post, many police departments have inadequate “early warning” systems, and many have none at all. As a result, “bad apples” are protected, rather than identified, until they do something so egregious that it cannot be covered up.

An early-warning system, of course, is only as good as the data it includes. Some systems, according to the Post, exclude the sort of information one would expect–complaints filed, incidents of excessive force–instead recording things like grooming violations (growing a beard in violation of the rules) or absences. And as one officer noted, recording even relevant data doesn’t do any good if no one is reviewing it and acting on it.

The real problem is a very human one: the deeply-embedded tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us versus them.” The culture of a police department is very similar to that of a military group. Such “bonding” can be an important asset when danger approaches, but it can lead to a counterproductive protectiveness when one of “ours” is accused of improper behavior. When the accusation comes from someone who doesn’t look like “us”–someone who is culturally or socio-economically or racially different–that tribal instinct can overcome good judgment.

As strong as that impulse is, it behooves us to recognize that there are a lot of good guys in blue who play by the rules and require others to do the same.

Back in my City Hall days, I remember a conversation with the then-Chief of Police, about a lawsuit that had just been filed against a member of his force. Far from being defensive, he immediately agreed to investigate the allegations, saying “When we give someone a lethal weapon and the authority to use it, we have an obligation to make sure he is well-trained, emotionally healthy, and wearing a badge for the right reasons.”

Says it all.

Breach of (Social) Contract

Thanks to ubiquitous smart-phone cameras, social media and Black Lives Matter, the general public can no longer ignore accusations that officers in a number of police departments routinely use excessive force and engage in unconstitutional behaviors.  Investigations by the U.S. Justice Department—most recently in Baltimore— confirm persistent, systemic practices that violate the rights of the citizens we expect police to serve and protect.

For a year following the death of Freddy Gray, the Justice Department monitored the Baltimore police department. The results of that investigation were unambiguous: unconstitutional practices included disproportionate rates of stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans, and excessive use of force against juveniles and people with mental health disabilities. The report attributed these practices to “systemic deficiencies” in training, policies, and accountability structures that “fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively.”

A DOJ investigation of police in Ferguson, Missouri, reached a similar conclusion, finding a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against African-Americans that targeted them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force, and jail sentences.

Baltimore and Ferguson are hardly unique.

As a practical matter, widespread distrust makes policing infinitely more difficult. Good policing depends upon access to reliable information and co-operation with community leaders; avenues of communication dry up when police are seen as enemies rather than protectors.

Far more troubling than the practical consequences of unprofessional behavior, however, is the damage done to America’s social fabric by what can only be seen as a breach of our most fundamental social contract.

The Enlightenment philosophers who influenced America’s founders proposed a trade of sorts; we call that trade the “social contract.” Citizens would give government the exclusive right to exercise coercive force; in return, government would use that force to protect individual rights—to provide for a society of “ordered liberty,” within which the strong could not prey with impunity on the weak.

We Americans argue constantly about the proper role of government, but there is no serious debate about the state’s obligation to provide for the public safety, or about the right of all citizens to expect equal justice before the law.

When government fails to keep its part of that essential bargain, when it breaches the social contract, it damages the bonds of citizenship and undermines the rule of law.

An old lawyer once told me that there is only one legal question: what should we do? How can our dysfunctional police departments go about changing entrenched, perverse cultures? A few suggestions, drawn from the research literature:

  • Training is key—and currently very uneven. A number of police departments across the country have instituted effective training programs that help individual officers understand implicit bias, calibrate their responses to the magnitude of the threats encountered, and learn techniques that calm, rather than exacerbate, confrontations. Those programs need to be replicated everywhere, but especially in troubled departments.
  • Policies governing police activities need to be clear, effectively communicated to the rank and file, and fairly and strictly enforced. Those policies should also be vetted by lawyers familiar with the Constitution and especially the jurisprudence of the First and Fourth Amendments.
  • Collection of accurate, relevant data is critical. Data is the means by which we measure progress, the standard against which we determine the appropriateness of behavior. It allows self-evaluation, and its public availability also allows other stakeholders to hold police accountable. That data should allow the department to identify problematic officers and intervene before they cross a serious line.
  • Every police department should have a transparent complaint process accessible to citizens, and complaints against police officers should not be evaluated solely by their peers. (In Baltimore, this was evidently a source of considerable—and understandable—distrust.) Complaints should be reviewed by disinterested parties, and policies prohibiting retaliation for filing a complaint should be strictly enforced.

In the long term, departments should focus more attention on the way they recruit and select new police officers. The recruiting process should include psychological examinations to weed out men and women who are likely to abuse authority, or who are otherwise unsuited to the stresses of the profession. And it should go without saying—so I’ll say it—departments should aim for recruits who are representative of the populations they will serve. That sounds easier than it is, but the results are worth the effort.

If Americans still believe in e pluribus unum—if we still want to unite, rather than divide, our many communities—fixing our policing problem is an essential first step.











Smoking and Drinking

Have you ever wondered about the disparity in the way the law treats alcohol, tobacco and marijuana?

As any police officer will attest, a nasty drunk is far more dangerous than someone zoned out on “weed.” As the scientific literature will confirm, tobacco is many times more harmful than marijuana. Not only has the belief that marijuana is a “gateway drug” proved bogus, but for adults, it is less harmful than either smoking or excessive ingestion of alcohol. (No one has ever died of a marijuana overdose, although if your preferred method of indulging is brownies, I suppose the resulting obesity might get you.)

People with addictive personalities will abuse whatever is at hand–alcohol, drugs, even glue. Should we outlaw glue?

The history of America’s war on drugs is too labyrinthian and too racist to recount here, and there are plenty of books and articles on the subject if you are interested in the whole sordid story. Suffice it to say that our mindless war on weed has made the once-profitable cultivation of hemp illegal, prevented study of marijuana’s medicinal value, and not-so-incidentally ruined countless lives (mostly African-American; black people are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though both groups use the drug at roughly the same rate.).

But attitudes are finally changing.

In 1969, according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans thought the drug should be illegal; by 2015, that number had fallen to 44 percent.

After Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana, policymakers began to seriously consider a number of issues–especially pot’s potential to generate tax revenue.

Legalization raises a number of questions with policy implications. For example, how can it be taxed? In 2015, Colorado raised $135 million in taxes and fees from legal sales. Another important question: Will states that stop arresting people for selling or having marijuana save money on policing and reduce their incarceration rates? Some 620,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2014, according to the FBI; young minority men were disproportionately targeted. Will more children take to smoking weed? As laws relax and the stigma associated with marijuana recedes, people may use more.

A study from Australia suggests some answers to those questions. The authors looked at what consequences we might expect if marijuana were regulated like alcohol and sold to people above the age of 21. They extrapolated their analysis to include the United States, a country with similar cultural behaviors and economies. Here are some of their findings:

  • The U.S. could raise between $4 billion and $12 billion annually by taxing legal marijuana. These numbers are based on a tax levy of about 25 percent, which is what the state of Colorado charges.
  • When people have more access to marijuana (through legal and illegal means) more people use it.
  • Currently, 17 percent of Australians say they do not use cannabis for fear of legal repercussions; 90 percent of those say that access is not the reason.

Access is evidently not a problem for people in either country; several years ago, an American study found that teenagers in Maryland could obtain illegal marijuana (and other drugs) much more easily than they could obtain legal but regulated alcohol. Legalization and regulation similar to that currently in place for liquor stores would probably reduce today’s easy availability.

The authors determined that a tax rate of 25% wasn’t high enough to incentivize a black market. One of the (many) negative consequences of drug prohibition is the fact that it makes an illegal market profitable.

In the U.S., tobacco and alcohol interests have powerful lobbies, so those substances are legal even though they do far more harm than marijuana.

Just to be clear, I don’t advocate prohibition for any of these; we’ve seen how well that works. Substance abuse is a public health problem; it shouldn’t be a matter for the criminal justice system.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we based public policy on evidence and analysis, rather than moralism and money?

“Facts Don’t Win Elections”

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton recently reflected upon the disconnect between crime statistics and popular beliefs about violent crime.

The disconnect between actual rates of violent crime and the public perception of the rates of violent crime is astonishing. In 2014, 63% of Americans believed that violent crime was going up when, in reality, it’s been dropping steadily for 25 years and has dropped 20% in the last 8 years. In fact, a majority of Americans have believed that every year since 2003.

There are several explanations that can be offered for that disconnect, but undoubtedly, the media bears considerable responsibility. Not only do news sources–particularly television news–focus on crime (“if it bleeds, it leads”), but the number of movies and popular television shows that feature crime fighters of one sort or another (everything from the multiple versions of Law and Order and NCIS to lawyer shows to cops and robbers) sometimes seem to dwarf other kinds of subject matter.

It isn’t just that the media report so prominently on local crime incidents. In the age of globalization, we see reports from all around the world. Did a bomb go off in a London subway? It makes the evening news. Was someone murdered in Paris? It makes the evening news. The impression is that danger lurks everywhere.

It isn’t all that innocent, however, as Brayton points out.

But I think there’s one more element to this that is important. One of our two major political parties has a huge interest in convincing people that violent crime is getting worse instead of better. And one of the most influential interest groups for that party, the NRA, has become little more than the marketing wing of the gun industry. And surveys also show that support for gun rights goes up as fear of crime goes up. So there is a huge incentive to lie to people and convince them that crime is going up. And since, as noted above, most people have no experience with actual violent crime, the media images and political messages that focus on violent crime are more likely to be effective.

Thus you get what happened at the RNC, where they were selling not only the idea of a dystopic future but a dystopic present. They presented America as a hellscape of violence that simply does not exist, despite some high-profile situations that got enormous media saturation. It has never been safer to be an American. It’s never been safer to be a cop in America. Those are the facts. But facts don’t win elections.

Facts. Evidence. Reality. Next to a good story, I guess they don’t stand much of a chance.