Pubdate: Mon, 22 May 2000
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Los Angeles Times
Contact:  Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: (213) 237-4712
Author: Erin Texeira, Times Staff Writer


Race: Researchers say blacks, browns receive tougher treatment from legal

"Where you going?" the cops asked the teenager lugging his schoolbooks along
Vermont Avenue one afternoon last week. "What are you doing?"

They pointed to his UC Berkeley cap and clothes, all blue--a color often
favored by local gang members. And they said:

"You look suspicious."

They let him go with a warning, but later that day Wylie Jason Tidwell III,
17, became livid while telling the story to friends.

"Suspicious? Me? Why, because I'm black?" asked the tall Washington Prep
High School senior, soon to be a San Francisco State University freshman.

His friends, college-bound black and Latino youths who also live in
South-Central Los Angeles, listened and nodded. Said one: "The experience is
all the same here. We've all been through that and worse."

New studies show that these teenagers are not alone.

Pulling together the most comprehensive data yet on race and crime in
America, two recent reports show that, at every stage of the nation's system
of crime and punishment--from arrest through plea bargaining to
sentencing--black and brown Americans get tougher treatment than whites.

And the studies show that criminal justice trends in California closely
mirror national conditions.

Such patterns, the studies say, have led to worsening racial disparities in
criminal justice. And they have contributed to deep-rooted hopelessness in
many communities of color.

The studies also highlight new, disheartening trends, ones Tidwell and his
friends found unsurprising:

* Among first-time offenders charged with the same crime, young minority
group members are six times as likely to be locked up as are young whites.

* Whites and blacks use drugs at the same rate, yet nearly two-thirds of
those convicted of drug offenses are black.

* Between 1985 and 1995, the rate of Latino incarceration nationwide more
than tripled. Latinos are the fastest-growing group of imprisoned Americans.

* Young African Americans in California are imprisoned in state facilities
at the third-highest rate in the nation. Though just 7% of Californians are
black, 38% of the youths sent to adult prisons in 1996 were black.

"Crime has come to be defined as an issue of people of color, and the
long-term consequences are going to be grave," said Dan Macallair, vice
president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a 15-year-old
national group aimed at reducing society's use of prisons to solve social
problems. He said African Americans, who have the highest incarceration
rates in the nation, already have "been devastated" by society's zeal to
imprison people. Increasingly, he added, similar effects appear to be
emerging in the Latino community.

The new reports were compiled by two umbrella public policy groups: the
Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Council on Civil Rights, a 50-year-old
group that represents 185 human rights organizations, and Building Blocks
for Youth, a liberal group of child and legal advocacy organizations focused
on helping minority juvenile offenders.

Anti-Crime Fervor Is Seen as a Factor

Experts say the data--from government and private databases, academic
studies, think tanks and other sources--are the most conclusive yet on
American race, crime and imprisonment.

Because statistics on Latinos, Asians and Native Americans often are scarce,
the reports focus largely on disparities between blacks and whites.

They also underscore that, in recent years, the race-crime gap has worsened,
even as crime rates have gone down.

The reason: a strong anti-crime sentiment across the nation that has
inspired a wave of new tough-on-crime laws, Macallair said.

"This is a politically charged issue," he said.

California's Proposition 21 is one recent example.

The Gang Violence and Youth Crime Prevention Act, approved in March by more
than six in 10 voters, makes it easier to try young people as adults and to
sentence them to adult prisons.

"The consequences of Proposition 21 are staggering," reads the Leadership
Council on Civil Rights report, released May 4. "Given the demonstrable
racial disparity in juvenile justice, there is little question that the
impact of Proposition 21 will fall largely on minority youth."

Rochelle Hernandez, a sophomore at Crenshaw High School, organized her
classmates to protest the law when it was on the ballot. "The crimes that
cause the most problems in society are white-collar crimes, but [the
proposition] targeted street crimes--it targeted black and brown kids," she

In recent years more than 40 states, including California, have changed
their laws to make it easier to try youths as adults, according to Building
Blocks for Youth. In 1998, more than 200,000 young people were prosecuted as
adults, the group said.

And, in California, black youths are 2.5 times as likely to be tried as
adults as whites are, according to the Center on Juvenile Justice, which
collaborated on the Building Blocks report.

Similarly, the national war on drugs, begun in the 1980s by former President
Ronald Reagan, aimed to curb use by jailing nonviolent drug offenders. As a
result, between 1980 and 1995, the number of state prisoners convicted of
drug crimes increased by more than 1,000%, the Leadership Council reports.
In the same period, drug offenders in state prisons rose from one in 16 to
one in four.

Data in both studies consistently showed that most people incarcerated for
drug offenses are members of minorities. Blacks make up about 13% of the
U.S. population but are about 74% of those sentenced to prison for drug
offenses, according to the Leadership Council.

Behind these data are such examples as the sentencing disparity between use
of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

Government health statistics show that Americans, regardless of race, use
drugs at about the same rate, but most crack cocaine users are white. Yet in
1993 more than 95% of those convicted of federal crack offenses were black
or Latino, according to the Leadership Council.

And federal laws call for a 10-year sentence for someone caught selling 500
grams of crack. But a dealer would have to sell 10 times that amount--5,000
grams--to get that same sentence for selling powder cocaine.

Despite the accumulated evidence of such racial disparities, why does the
problem persist?

The studies' authors avoid simple explanations.

"We were cautious, and I think appropriately so," said Marc Schindler, a
staff attorney with the Youth Law Center, which collaborated on the Building
Blocks study, released last month. "Racism to a certain extent does play a
role, but it's probably not the No. 1 factor."

Schindler cited other factors, such as flaws in the criminal justice system
and a skewed perception conveyed by the media that crime is a minority

Activists who work on issues of race and crime agree.

Poverty often is one of the biggest hurdles to justice, said Javier
Stauring, the Catholic chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall in East Los

For example, he said, a poor youth from a single-parent home often is unable
to bring a family member with him when he goes before a judge for
sentencing. "He's probably going to Y.A.," he said, referring to the
California Youth Authority.

"But if a kid comes with both parents and dad's in a three-piece suit and
has insurance that can cover [drug] rehabilitation, the judge has a lot of
options," he said. "That plays a big role."

Though prosecutors, judges and other actors in the criminal justice process
are rarely overtly racist, Schindler said, many harbor unconscious racial

The reports stress that, at every stage of the criminal justice process,
such unconscious biases erode the chances that minorities will get a fair

For explanation, some point to racial patterns in criminal justice
authorities. Eighty-five percent of state prosecutors in California are
white, according to Macallair.

Such demographics, he said, can lead to "wide perception gaps."

Still, one recent study analyzing racial bias among probation officers found
few differences between white and black officers. The bias was, according to
the author, rooted in the structure of the probation system itself.

The study, by a University of Washington sociologist, found a subtle,
consistent bias by probation officers in their written reports on young
black and white offenders.

The officers routinely described blacks as bad kids with character flaws.
But they depicted white offenders as victims of negative environmental
factors, such as exposure to family conflict or delinquent friends.

"The data couldn't have been more striking," said George S. Bridges, who
co-wrote the study. "These were kids with the same background, the same
offense, the same age. The only difference was race."

Perceiving Young Blacks as Bad

Judges use probation officers' reports to help determine how to treat--or
punish--youth offenders, he said. Such determinations often rest heavily on
whether a judge believes a youth can be rehabilitated.

When decision-makers in the criminal justice system routinely perceive young
blacks as bad kids who can't be rehabilitated, the effects are "profound,"
Bridges said.

"This will lead to longer rates of incarceration for minority children . . .
that will ultimately have a severe impact on the child's livelihood," he

Jody David Armour, a law professor at USC, calls such treatment of
minorities "a sympathy deficit."

He pointed to last year's youth violence at Columbine High School in
Littleton, Colo., as proof that "there can be a lot of sympathy for youth in

"We can find it in our hearts to identify with the Columbine kids," Armour
said. "We looked for circumstantial evidence: the jock culture, the video
games. But when we talk about drive-by shootings in the inner city, we talk
about [the youths being] monsters."

Despite the complex explanations behind the race-crime gap, the Leadership
Council study said skin color is the most reliable predictor of who police
will target and whether prosecutors will offer plea bargains, try young
people as adults or seek the death penalty.

And this, experts stress, contributes to a growing sense of hopelessness in
many minority communities.

Alberto Retana of South Central Youth Empowered Through Action helped teens
in South-Central Los Angeles rally against Proposition 21. When the law
passed, he saw firsthand the despair in their faces.

"The teens saw it as a definite attack on their community," Retana said.
"When the law was put on the books, it just deepened the sadness and sense
of hopelessness among them. It's a disempowering experience."

Said Stauring, the juvenile hall chaplain: "African American and Latino
youth have been dehumanized. It's scary when kids know that society has
given up on them."
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