This article is part 2 of Kirsten Edwards' four-part essay. Part 1 discussed the interpretation of guilt in the US legal system. Part 3 discusses the effects of mental illness and domestic violence on incarceration rates in the US and Part 4 examines the implications of this policy for American democracy.
One of my clients has a difficult life, actually all of them do, but for one battling with illness, poverty and the demands of disabled children, her boyfriend had provided a bit of a bright spot. A gentle, quiet man, he attended court hearings with her when authorities threatened to take her child away, or her welfare benefits, and provided valuable babysitting when she needed some time out. Sometimes he would make a game out of the children helping him complete domestic chores around the house. One day I visited my client to find her confused and upset. Her boyfriend was in jail and she did not know where he was or when he was getting out. The Public Defender, his "lawyer", would not tell my client or me either but eventfully I discovered the sad news: he was in prison for a year, with no possibility of parole. His crime? Failing to visit his probation officer. I don’t know what his original crime had been but he had only got probation so presumably something not too serious. Perhaps he stole a Milky Way…
Where to start? One that is often quoted is that "fully one third of African-American men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine are currently incarcerated, on probation, or on parole". In fact, regional differences distort the statistics. In places like Washington DC and Baltimore more than half of the young black men of the city at any one time will be in jail. In DC what are the chances of a black male going to jail in his life time? At least 90 per cent.
So why are so many black people being locked up? Well, they get a lot of attention. The American Civil Liberties Union has recently placed an advertisement in US magazines that states "the man on the left is 75 times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving than the man on the right". The man pictured on the left is Martin Luther King Jr, on the right is a photo of the killer Charles Manson. The ad campaign is directed at raising public consciousness of a practice known as racial profiling: policing that heavily targets black citizens. The statistics gathered by a number of sources speak for themselves:
77 per cent of drivers stopped and searched on a Maryland highway are black. They comprise only 17 per cent of highway users.
80 per cent of those stopped and searched in Florida are black or hispanic. They are only 5 per cent of drivers.
Blacks are 5 times more likely to be stopped than white drivers on the main highway from New York to New Jersey (seen in Being John Malkovich).
In the US they call this offense DWB (Driving While Black). And the practice is not just confined to driving, blacks are also 2-4 times more likely to be stopped and frisked by police than white citizens. Police defend racial profiling on the basis that they just doing their job – blacks commit more crime. The problem is that the statistics they rely on are … arrest rates . Can you spot the circularity?
Young people, especially young black men…
Anecdote: Many people I know have recently visited New York and have come back raving about zero tolerance: "it’s so much safer than before" they gush to their friends. In a way this is true, the dark days of constant muggings seem over and New York certainly is much safer for a white tourist happily strolling in Central Park. But it is safety at a price – and the price is paid primarily by young black men. Amidou Diallo was just a 22-year-old black man standing on a street corner – he got shot 41 times by police for reaching for his wallet. This incident, of course, is well known. Fewer people know that no less than 72 black kids, I have to repeat that seventy-two black children, spent an entire night in jail in New York for …. riding bikes without bells. I am sure they felt very safe – in jail and out.
At least they survived. In Idaho, a teenage boy imprisoned for failing to pay a $73 traffic fine was tortured and murdered by other prisoners. In Texas another teenage boy was beaten and raped so often by adult inmates that he hanged himself in his cell.
Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world canít seem to get her a boyfriend.