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African American Forum

A. Policing - Racial Disparity in the United States Criminal Justice System 1

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In 2016, black Americans comprised 27% of all individuals arrested in the United States—double their share of the total population. Black youth accounted for 15% of all U.S. children yet made up 35% of juvenile arrests in that year. What might appear at first to be a linkage between race and crime is in large part a function of concentrated urban poverty, which is far more common for African Americans than for other racial groups. This accounts for a substantial portion of African Americans’ increased likelihood of committing certain violent and property crimes. But while there is a higher black rate of involvement in certain crimes, white Americans overestimate the proportion of crime committed by blacks and Latinos, overlook the fact that communities of color are disproportionately victims of crime, and discount the prevalence of bias in the criminal justice system.

In 1968, the Kerner Commission called on the country to make “massive and sustained” investments in jobs and education to reverse the “segregation and poverty [that] have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.” Fifty years later, the Commission’s lone surviving member concluded that “in many ways, things have gotten no better—or have gotten worse.”

The rise of mass incarceration begins with disproportionate levels of police contact with African Americans. This is striking in particular for drug offenses, which are committed at roughly equal rates across races. “One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and chief of LaGrange, Georgia’s police department. The chief added: “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources.” Dekmar’s view is not uncommon. Absent meaningful efforts to address societal segregation and disproportionate levels of poverty, U.S. criminal justice policies have cast a dragnet targeting African Americans. The War on Drugs as well as policing policies including “Broken Windows” and “Stop, Question, and Frisk” sanction higher levels of police contact with African Americans. This includes higher levels of police contact with innocent people and higher levels of arrests for drug crimes.


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