WASHINGTON _ Minorities and the poor remain the most discriminated against in the criminal justice system, say some scholars and advocates who want to change the system.
Often, say those scholars and advocates, poverty and race overlap in who is jailed in the U.S.
“Class is as much an issue as race in regards to all of this,” said Angela Davis, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. , at a recent seminar marking Black History Month. “Most people in the criminal justice system are poor, regardless of their race. But there are cases when the wealth of a black person will not protect them.”
Racism and the criminal justice system are getting renewed attention as organizations, such as American University, focus on Black History Month. At the same time, allegations of mistreatment of minorities by police also are making news.
In New Jersey, for example, the Justice Department is investigating whether state troopers regularly stop black and other minority drivers in violation of their civil rights. New Jersey state police officials have strongly denied stopping motorists based on their race.
Among critics, the alleged practice of targeting minority motorists is described as a “driving-while-black” offense. Organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union are taking a stand on this issue, criminal justice scholars say.
For Davis and other justice critics, how the system treats minorities is critical for a simple reason: The number of minorities going to jail, they say, is growing at alarming rate. Discrimination – by race, class, and poverty – remains a major reason, they argue.
As the year 2000 nears, one million African American males are expected to be in prison, says Jerome Miller, co-founder of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. “It's part of a trend,” said Miller. He is also author of “Search and Destroy: African Americans in the Criminal Justice System.”
Citing federal statistics, Miller's organization, which focuses on improving the criminal justice system, calculates the growth rate this way:
· The adult jail population grew from 1984 to 1997 at an average rate of 7 percent each year from the previous year.
· Whites accounted for 35.7 percent of the total increase, Hispanics for 17.6 percent, African Americans for 43.9 percent, and others for 2.7 percent.
· African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, 13 percent of the drug using population, but 74 percent of the people sent to prison for drug possession.
Discrimination's role in the court system is also part of the growth, critics say. In court cases, Davis said, prosecutors have a lot of power to decide the defendant's fate.
“Prosecutors in my view are probably the most powerful players in the criminal justice system,” she said. When a policeman brings a case to a prosecutor, for example, the prosecutor decides whether the case should be thrown out, Davis added.
“Whenever you've got discretion,” she said, “you have the ability to discriminate.”
In terms of fair representation in the U.S. court system, the poor and minorities are at a disadvantage.
“Minorities, in particular African Americans, are disproportionately poor,” said Davis.
“Poor people charged with crimes really don't have a strong constituency.”