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Tags: race | justicesystem | prison

Let's Face the Race Problem in Our Justice System

death penalty spelled out in small blocks on a legal pad with a magnifying glass and reading glasses lying nearby

Hannah Cox By Tuesday, 18 February 2020 09:11 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Conservatives have always held themselves out as the party that values data. And at least traditionally, we've held ourselves to supporting only programs where the math works and the policy is effective.

But it's odd that so many on the right ignore the unmistakable data that shows a discrepancy in sentencing for people of color within the criminal justice system.

The numbers are actually pretty damning, especially within the death penalty apparatus. But you'll rarely hear those numbers acknowledged by proponents of capital punishment.

The reality is that the factors predominately determining who ends up on death row and who ends up with lesser sentences have little to do with the nature of the crime. Rather, they revolve around factors that center around race: the race of the defendant, the race of the victim, and the location of the crime.

Let's begin with the first two factors. In 96 percent of cases studied, evidence of racial bias against the defendant, victim or both has been discovered.

First and foremost, you are statistically more likely to get the death penalty if you are a black male. Not only that, but some studies have shown a correlation between the likelihood of a death sentence and skin darkness — those with darker complexions receive harsher sentences, even among black men.

The makeup of the nation’s death rows currently looks like this:

  • 41.6% Black
  • 13.3% Latino
  • 42.1% White

Compare that to the national makeup of these populations:

  • 13.4% Black
  • 18.3% Latino
  • 76.5% White

It's more than evident that certain demographics are overrepresented on death row. And before you suggest that this is due to people of color committing more crimes, let's look at the big picture.

The discrepancy in sentencing begins with a discrepancy in policing. What crimes are solved in the first place, and which ones are selected as capital cases? We clear only about 60 percent of homicides in this country every year. All we really know from the data is that law enforcement is more likely to solve crimes perpetrated on a victim who is white by a person who is black.

The race of the victim makes all the difference when it comes to capital cases. While about half of all murder victims are black, in 2019 nearly 80 percent of all new death sentences and 73 percent of all executions were imposed for cases with white victims. This isn't a departure from older trends.

And the racial combination that is the most likely to result in a death sentence? When the defendant is black and the victim is white.

What all that means is that we value victims differently in this. If a white person is killed by a black person, we are far more likely to solve their case and also to spend an extra million dollars or so to pursue capital charges. Meanwhile, 40 percent of the families of homicide victims get no answers in their loved ones' cases.

The statistics detailing racial bias are exhaustive, and more can be found here.

Now let’s circle back to the third leading determinant in death sentences: the location.

The county where the crime is committed plays the biggest role in whether a person receives a death sentence. That’s because only 2 percent of the nation’s counties bring the vast majority of all death penalty cases. To date, all executions since reinstatement of the death penalty have come from less than 16 percent of the nation's counties.

That data is problematic enough, proving an arbitrariness in sentencing that has been found unconstitutional numerous times. But upon closer examination, this data also reveals racial biases as well.

The local district attorney has almost complete discretion for determining when the death penalty is pursued or not. So who are the people choosing to pursue death sentences for mostly black men and white victims? In death penalty states, 1,794 of the district attorneys are white, compared to only 22 who are black and 22 who are Hispanic.

Not a good look. And it gets worse.

Prosecutorial misconduct is rampant in our justice system, and rarely is it reprimanded. One form of such misconduct frequently seen in the death penalty system is a method prosecutors use to strike black jurors from their pool and stack their juries with individuals they believe to be more prone to harsh punishment. This is supposed to be illegal, but it happens all the time and the courts do little to nothing about it. It isn’t that uncommon to find black defendants who were sentenced to death by all white juries — a process most Americans believed to have ended with Atticus Finch.

Our justice system still bears the scars of our nation’s long and depressing history of racial inequality. Some of these problems exist due to policies put in place that intentionally seek to target people of color. Others are the result of subconscious biases. None of them are acceptable.

As we recognize Black History Month and celebrate all of the Americans who have tirelessly fought for justice and equality under the law, let's honor them by picking up their torch and continuing to do the same.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.

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It's odd that so many on the right ignore the unmistakable data that shows a discrepancy in sentencing for people of color within the criminal justice system.
race, justicesystem, prison
Tuesday, 18 February 2020 09:11 AM
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