Pubdate: Sun, 30 Sep 2001
Source: Press & Sun Bulletin (NY)
Copyright: 2001 Press & Sun Bulletin
Author: Brad Heath


Many Causes Seen For Racial Divide In Justice System

Andrel Brooks' role in a million-dollar cocaine smuggling ring put him 
before a judge four years ago. But he sometimes thinks he was sentenced to 
spend 20 years behind the razor wire of a maximum security prison because 
he is black.

"When you look into these prison walls, you don't see whites in here from 
Binghamton," Brooks wrote in a letter from his cell at the Auburn 
Correctional Facility, where he is serving a 20-year-to-life sentence for 
drug possession and conspiracy. "It's just like a black disease in Broome 

In the past decade, 42 percent of the people Broome County sent to state 
prison were black, even though blacks make up just 3 percent of the 
county's population, an analysis of state records shows. That imbalance is 
mirrored in almost every part of the state, though in few places is it so 

Why? The question has haunted New York's criminal justice system for years, 
but almost nobody agrees on the answer.

Police and prosecutors blame a flourishing drug trade in the Southern 
Tier's black community and drug dealers -- many of them minorities -- who 
come to Binghamton from New York City, chasing the quick cash they hope to 
make here. Some minority leaders blame racism. And people who study crime 
say it doesn't help that blacks arrested in Broome County are, as often as 
not, poor.

Whatever the reasons, the results are lopsided, a Press & Sun-Bulletin 
study of crime in Broome County shows. The disparities crop up at just 
about every step in the process -- from the time people are arrested until 
they board a van bound for prison.

Consider this:

* Blacks who are arrested for carrying drugs in Broome County are twice as 
likely as whites to be charged with a felony, the most serious charge 
authorities can bring. During the 1990s, 68 percent of blacks arrested for 
drug possession were charged with felonies, compared to 29 percent of whites.

* Even after they're arrested, blacks are more likely to end up in state 
prison. During the past decade, 36 percent of blacks charged with felony 
drug possession -- but only 19 percent of whites -- ended up in prison, the 
toughest penalty meted out in such cases.

Minority leaders say the numbers are troubling but not surprising.

"A crime is a crime, but the issue here seems to be that it's not being 
handled equitably," said Major Barnett, president of the Broome- Tioga 
chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers aren't surprised, either. Nor are judges or 
veteran police officers, all of whom said they see nothing sinister about 
the numbers. Across the board, they insist race plays no part in decisions 
about who should be arrested, charged with felonies or eventually sentenced 
to prison.

"Color doesn't matter," said Broome County Judge Martin Smith. "The process 
has blinders on. It doesn't matter if you're black, green, purple or red. 
It's irrelevant."

Using state prison records and statistics from New York's Division of 
Criminal Justice Services, the Press & Sun-Bulletin examined a decade of 
arrests and prison sentences. The newspaper focused its analysis on drug 
possession cases because those are by far the most common and, for years, 
have been the target of criticism by civil rights activists.

In the past decade, more than half of the 1,257 blacks Broome County sent 
to state prison were convicted of crimes involving drugs, records show.

Not everyone agrees on what the numbers mean. Broome County District 
Attorney Gerald F. Mollen called the newspaper's analysis "useless." Others 
said the figures point to a broad trend that even criminologists still 
haven't been able to explain entirely.

For all the time that has been spent grappling with why prison cells tend 
to be filled disproportionately with blacks, nobody has come up with an 
answer that everybody can agree on.

That's partly because not every scale weighs against blacks.

When it comes to selling drugs in Broome County, blacks and whites are 
equally likely to be sent to prison, the newspaper's analysis showed. And 
once they end up there, blacks and whites serve almost identical sentences. 
In a few categories of crime, including some for selling drugs, prison 
terms for blacks actually are shorter, the Press & Sun- Bulletin's analysis 

"This leaves us with the very real -- and very unanswered -- question of 
why blacks are disproportionately represented in the prison population," 
said John Tunney, president of the New York State District Attorneys 

Imported crime

One of the answers, experts say, is that Broome County imports crime.

Drugs and the people who sell them come up from New York City in the 
bellies of short-haul buses. Drug dealers fresh off the streets of 
Manhattan stake out corners on Carroll Street and other spots in Binghamton.

"People come here from New York, and they bring crime with them," Sheriff 
David Harder said.

Most of them are black, police and prosecutors say. And for the police 
cruising Binghamton's streets, they are easy targets.

"We don't target anyone because of their race. We never have," said 
Binghamton Police Capt. John Butler. "But when people are out in public 
view, they're going to get caught."

When they do, experts said, it's like having New York City's crime 
statistics suddenly pop up in Broome County.

According to some police estimates, as many as nine of every 10 people 
arrested for selling cocaine in Broome live someplace else, and almost none 
of them are white. Drug dealers who live in the area are harder to catch. 
They can sell from their homes, behind closed doors and out of public view. 
Blacks who come to Broome County to sell drugs do much of their business on 
the street, police said. They don't have doors to hide behind.

Prior convictions count against dealers, too. People who may already have 
been cycled through New York City's overwhelmed courts with little 
punishment suddenly find themselves facing stiffer charges when the police 
arrest them again. A second drug conviction almost always means an 
automatic felony. And that means prison.

"Once you get to that point, the judge's hands are tied," said Jay Wilber, 
Broome's acting public defender.

Upstate prosecutors also take a tougher view of drugs than their inundated 
counterparts in New York City. And upstate courts typically mete out 
stiffer prison sentences -- especially for people who don't live in the 
area and couldn't be monitored by local probation officials were they to 
face a sentence other than prison.

It's not a response that looks at a defendant's race. But it's one whose 
effects aren't racially balanced, either, experts said.

"You have kids who come up here to sell a rock of cocaine and they get 
busted, and they're totally shocked because the response is so severe," 
said Kevin Wright, a Binghamton University criminologist.

"That's probably not a racial response," he said. "That's probably a 
community response. And this is a white community."

White system

 From the time Lance Marrow was arrested for drug possession to the time he 
was shipped to a state prison cell in Auburn in 1999, just about the only 
other black faces he saw belonged to fellow inmates -- not to judges or 
jailers or prosecutors or the officials who prepared his sentencing report. 
They were almost all white.

So are most area police officers. And most lawyers.

In a county with as few minorities as Broome, that's not surprising. But 
civil rights leaders say it's not comforting to minority defendants who see 
little of themselves in their jailers, their lawyers, or the judges and 
juries who ultimately decide their fate.

"When you see people who don't look like you, it's hard to identify with 
them. There's a real lack of sensitivity here," the NAACP's Barnett said.

And government officials don't disagree.

Mollen said he's tried recruiting minorities to work as county prosecutors, 
but has met with little success. It's hard to pitch life in Broome County 
to black lawyers who don't see many social opportunities in a county with 
such little diversity, he said.

The sheriff's department has tried, too. It has asked the NAACP and the 
Urban League to urge minorities to take the civil service tests that are 
the first step in finding a law enforcement job in Broome County, Harder said.

But few take the test.

"The system would definitely be better off if we had better minority 
representation," Mollen said. "But it's a very difficult task to accomplish."

Today, Broome's team of prosecutors is all white.

Race's role

None of these explanations satisfies minority activists.

"It's just not true that African-Americans or Latinos are committing most 
of the crimes in New York. There has to be another reason why they show up 
in prison so much," said Alice Green, director of the Albany-based Center 
for Law and Justice and a vocal critic of New York's criminal justice system.

"It's clear that race is a factor."

Police and prosecutors disagree. Detectives say they'll arrest drug dealers 
anywhere they can find them. And many prosecutors say they seldom know a 
defendant's race before they learn the details of a case. Besides, they 
say, so many cases in Broome County end in plea bargains cut between 
prosecutors and defense lawyers that most defendants agree in advance to 
whatever sentences they get.

Money, too, is often on the list of explanations. Throughout the United 
States, blacks tend to have lower incomes than their white neighbors, which 
experts said can put them at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a 
lawyer to steer them through the legal system. In some parts of the state 
- -- particularly New York City -- that means minorities often end up with 
inexperienced public defenders who push their clients into plea bargains, 
experts said.

That's less of an obstacle in places like Broome County, where crime rates 
are low, lawyers said. Here, public defenders -- who admit most of their 
cases end when their clients plead guilty -- aren't buried with the same 
caseloads their downstate counterparts face. And because there is little 
crime in Broome and counties like it, public defenders are often among only 
a handful of lawyers who handle criminal cases full time.

"All we do is criminal law," said Wilber, Broome County's acting public 
defender. "We're experts."

In the past decade, three of every four people Broome County sent to state 
prison for drug possession were black, state records show.

"Just looking at those results, you've got to see that it's 
discriminatory," said Robert Gangi, executive director of the Correctional 
Association of New York. "It's hard to say there's out- and-out racism, but 
there are prejudices and policies and practices that put minorities at a 
disadvantage. And there are cases where people aren't treated equally."

Mollen said he doubts it.

Without looking at every one of the hundreds of drug cases that have passed 
through Broome County's courts in the past 10 years, he said it is 
impossible to draw any conclusions about whether people of different races 
are treated differently. But he can't imagine a case, he said, in which a 
white defendant and a black defendant would face different sentences for 
the same crime. "It doesn't happen," he said.

So why do blacks fill so many prison cells?

There is little middle ground here at the confluence of two issues as 
polarizing as race and crime. Even given a scattering of clues, just about 
the only thing everyone agrees on is that even figuring out the right way 
to ask the question is difficult. Answering it -- with finality, at least 
- -- seems impossible.

So it lingers.
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