The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘sentencing’

The Implicit Situation of Criminal Justice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 5, 2012

Robert Smith, Charles Ogletree, and Johanna Wald hare recently posted a synopsis of their chapter, titled “Coloring Punishment: Implicit Social Cognition and Criminal Justice” (in Justin D. Levinson and Robert J. Smith (eds), Implicit Racial Bias Across the Law, 2012) on SSRN.  Here’s the synopsis:

The United States has become the world’s leader in incarceration. The size and pervasiveness of the criminal justice regime have no parallel in history. One in 100 citizens are locked away in prisons and jails – a figure that reflects a tenfold expansion in the corrections population in less than four decades. If we count those individuals who are currently on probation or parole, more than 7 million men and women are under legal supervision – a number equal to the population of Israel. This system of mass incarceration – which includes policing, corrections, and the courts – employs 2.2 million Americans – which exceeds the 1.7 million Americans employed in higher education and the 650,000 employed by the system of public welfare. At the turn of the millennium, approximately 1.5 million children had at least one parent in jail or prison, and 10 million have had a parent in jail at some time during their lives.

Racial disparities are a defining feature of this regime. One in eight black males between the ages of 20–29 are in prison or jail on any given day, as compared with 1 in 59 white males of the same age. At the beginning of the new millennium black males had almost a 1 in 3 chance of serving time in prison, as compared with 3 in 50 for white males. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has suggested that current criminal justice policies and practices “threaten to render irrelevant fifty years of hard-fought civil rights progress.”

There are varied explanations for these disparities. Most analyses point to a constellation of complex and interrelated structural and institutional factors that include poverty, high rates of joblessness, low levels of education, and the clustering of blacks and Latinos in concentrated urban areas that are more heavily policed than predominantly white suburban and rural areas. In this chapter, we put forth a complementary analysis, one intended to fill in gaps that we consider to be missing from these structural analyses. The ongoing racial disparities evidenced in every phase of the criminal justice system can be at least partly explained by the levels of implicit racial bias held by key actors in the system. Although we cannot yet offer “the smoking gun” that indisputably links the presence of implicit bias among decision-makers to harsher criminal sanctions for black Americans, our hypothesis is backed by a robust and fast-growing literature that has developed over the past decade. This scholarship demonstrates conclusively that Americans (whites and people of color alike) possess negative implicit biases against black citizens. These implicit race biases are held by liberals and conservatives; by young people and old; and by residents on the East Coast, the West Coast, the South, and the Midwest. They often coexist, unknowingly by the holder, alongside more overtly egalitarian views. What makes them so important in any discussion about race and the law is that these implicit biases frequently determine our actions and sway our decisions. In the criminal justice context, these biases lead, for example, to more arrests and harsher sentences for blacks than for whites who commit similar offenses.

It is vital to understand and document more fully how and where implicit biases operate within the criminal justice system. Doing so will enable us to develop policies, practices, and strategies aimed at identifying and reducing their effects. In this chapter, we offer specific illustrations of how implicit racial bias influences the actions of key decision-makers at various phases of our criminal justice system. This chapter is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of the role of implicit bias within the criminal justice system; rather its objective is to match the literature on implicit bias with actual examples of its “real-world” effects. From the formulation of criminal justice policy, to the decision to target citizens of a particular race, to the selection of criminal petit juries, the impact of implicit race bias on decisions about arrests, sentences, and severity of punishment is broad and deep.

This chapter proceeds in five parts. Part I sets the stage for this analysis, introducing key implicit racial bias studies that demonstrate that the face of crime in America is black. More specifically, it documents that black citizens are considered to be more dangerous, hostile, and prone to criminality and also less fully human than white citizens. Building on this foundation, Part II examines the role that implicit racial bias plays in the formulation of crime policy. Part III examines why implicit racial bias might drive disparate outcomes in the enforcement of criminal laws. This part examines the phenomenon in two distinct contexts: (1) the decision to punish a student in the school discipline context and (2) the use of unnecessary force in police–citizen encounters. Part IV uses the example of discriminatory jury selection to explore how implicit racial bias might contribute to the exclusion of black citizens from the criminal justice decision-making process. Part V concludes the chapter.

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Posted in Abstracts, Implicit Associations, Law | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Poverty and Delinquency

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 15, 2011


Tamar Birckhead recently posted her article, “Delinquent by Reason of Poverty” (forthcoming Journal of Law and Policy, Vol. 38, 2012) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract.

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This Article, written for the 12th Annual Access to Equal Justice Colloquium, explores the disproportionate representation of low-income children in the United States juvenile justice system. It examines the structural and institutional causes of this development, beginning with the most common points of entry into delinquency court — the child welfare system, public schools, retail stores, and neighborhood police presence. It introduces the concept of needs-based delinquency, a theory that challenges basic presuppositions about the method by which children are adjudicated delinquent. It argues that at each stage of the process — from intake through adjudication to disposition and probation — the court gives as much or more weight to the perceived “needs” of the child and her family than to the quality of the evidence against her or the ability of the state to prove its case. Typical features of the juvenile code, including the procedures for intake and diversion and the use of bench rather than jury trials, combine to shift the system’s emphasis from an evaluation of a child’s criminal responsibility to an assessment of a family’s social service needs. The standard of proof, therefore, is determined in large part by the socioeconomic class of the accused rather than the nature of the forum, an orientation that lowers the state’s burden for indigent juveniles while heightening it for affluent youth. The result is that in all but the most serious of cases, children from low-income homes do not have to be as “guilty” as those from families of means in order to enter and remain in the system, thereby widening the net of court intervention for poor children.

The Article establishes that the juvenile court’s traditional focus on the needs of destitute youth continues to be reflected in the system’s practices and procedures, despite the modern court’s shift in dispositional philosophy from rehabilitation to youth accountability and public safety. It argues that this emphasis on families’ needs when adjudicating delinquency has a disproportionate effect on low-income children, resulting in high rates of recidivism and perpetuating negative stereotypes based on class. It offers strategies for confronting and reversing this trend, including data collection that records the income-level of juveniles’ parents; initiatives that raise awareness of needs-based delinquency among police, prosecutors, defenders, judges, and agency personnel; diversion programs that reduce the high rate of juvenile court adjudications for minor offenses; cross-agency mental health treatment plans for children and adolescents; and the adoption of international juvenile justice models that are preventative and diversionary rather than penal and punitive. The Article challenges the view that in tight budgetary times, court involvement is the only way for poor children to access services. It concludes by calling for lawmakers and system players to end the practice of needs-based delinquency, with the goal of increasing fairness for all youth in the juvenile justice system.

Download the article for free here.

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