Columnist’s note: I am writing a series of columns in anticipation of the February 2020 publication of Margaret Andersen’s book, Getting Smart about Race: An American Conversation.
After my first column, I learned about two organizations that are hosting conversations about race right on the Eastern Shore!
In this column, I want to gain more insight from Margaret about the justice system. As a psychologist, I know that perceptions are facts to people…period.
Historically the justice system was complicit by enforcing Jim Crow laws, looking the other way at lynchings, disproportionately enforcing laws for blacks vs. whites, handing out longer sentences for black people and disproportionately targeting blacks at road stops.
The justice system has improved since the 1960s especially in the south. But it is still not a justice system for African Americans. There are hundreds of statistics showing disproportionate treatment by race. Here are just a few (and not the most egregious). Black American men are six times more likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime than white or Hispanic men. Black Americans are jailed on drug charges 10 times more often than whites, despite similar drug usage rates.
There are half a million people incarcerated because they cannot afford to make bail, most of them are African Americans. Sixty percent of the people in jail have not been convicted of the crime but are jailed because they cannot afford bail. Most have been charged with misdemeanor crimes; riding a bicycle on the sidewalk (yes!), driving without a license, petty larceny, bar fights, resisting arrest, etc. To avoid prison stays of up to 18 months while awaiting trial, 90% plead guilty. For those who ARE able to POST bail, only 2% of the cases result in a jail sentence. To recap, of those who cannot make bail, 90% plead guilty but of those who can make bail, only 2% end up being incarcerated.
These are statistics. The human stories that have sparked the “Black Lives Matter” movement are painful. The most disconcerting to me was the Sandra Bland story: A police officer pulled her over for failing to use her turn signal when she moved over to allow him to pass. After refusing to put out her cigarette, he arrested her using brutal force. Unable to make bail and overwhelmed with depression, she committed suicide in jail.
There are dramatically different perceptions between the blacks and whites about law enforcement. Black parents feel they must “give the talk” to their children about how to stay alive if they are stopped by the police. Yet, whites believe that these incidents, while reprehensible, are isolated and reflect only a few “bad apples.”
Question: How can we have a conversation about these different perceptions?
Dr. Andersen: The first thing I would say is that whites need to be aware that the high rate of incarceration for people of color, men especially, is based on the longstanding stereotype of criminality among Black (and now, Latino) men. Since slavery, black men have been perceived by whites as threatening—a painful irony, given that white men engaged in far more horrid violence against black people than black people did against whites. This is all too easy for people to forget (or, worse, be unaware of). The stereotype of men of color as a criminal threat continues to influence the discrimination that black and Hispanic men face in the criminal justice system. At every stage of the criminal justice process, men of color are discriminated against–likelihood of arrest, discrimination in sentencing, discrimination in administration of the death penalty, and so forth. Even starting early in school, research finds that young, black and Hispanic men are more likely to be disciplined–even for the same behaviors that young, white men engage in.
Question: Why are black rates of incarceration so much higher than for whites? What can be done to fix this?
Dr. Andersen: Social policies that incarcerate people for rather minor offenses (three strikes, you’re out and mandatory sentencing for drug offenses) have contributed to the mass incarceration of people of color–including women of color whose incarceration rates have been increasing. One way to alleviate this problem is to offer alternative forms of sentencing. Sentences such as community service can be more effective and are less likely to result in repeat offenses.
Question: What can our society do to reduce racism in the justice system?
Dr. Andersen: We desperately need policies that offer jobs for those with a felony record. To permanently disenfranchise people because of past mistakes leads to a potential lifetime of unemployment–which can then force ex-felons into the underground economy and, potentially, more crime. I wish we had a culture that was more forgiving, especially considering that so much of the behavior that lands people of color into jail and prison is youthful misjudgment. Ask yourself if you would want some misjudgment in your younger days to change the entire course of your life! To deprive young people of opportunities for work (and participation in voting and other civic behavior) only invites further problems.
To me, the criminal injustice system is one of the most heartbreaking issues of our time. Last year the Chesapeake Film Festival premiered The Sentence. Now an HBO documentary, it told the story of Cindy Shank, a mother of 3, who received a 15-year mandatory prison sentence. In her youth, she fell in love and lived with a drug dealer. Although she never did or sold drugs, she was convicted for NOT reporting him to authorities. Six years after the incident, the authorities arrested and convicted her. The film chronicles her story as a mother of three young children (one of them, six weeks old). It shows the extraordinary damage to her and her family.
There is hope. There are movements to reform the justice system. The movie Just Mercy chronicles the work of Bryan Stevenson, a native son of the Eastern Shore, who has dedicated his life to defend those wrongly condemned and those who did not receive proper representation. One of his first cases was Walter McMillian, who was sentenced to die in 1987 for murder, despite eyewitness testimony proving his innocence.
Other organizations have been created to help. One of my favorites is the Bail Bond project, which posts bail for minor offenses (less than $2000); 50% of those lucky recipients get their cases dropped and only 2% receive jail time.
In the meantime, the more we know, the more we can understand. Dr. Margaret Andersen’s book, Getting Smart about Race: An American Conversation will be published this February 2020.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.