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Justice in Black and White: The Justice Gap
by Dan Olson
April 13, 2000
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The news last week that both Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments will start keeping track of the race of people pulled over in traffic stops is part of a much broader examination of racism in Minnesota's criminal justice system. The study follows a state report which shows black men in Minnesota are sent to prison at a rate more than three times the national average.

In fact, Minnesota's imprisonment ratio of blacks to whites is 25-1, the highest of any state in the country. Some say racism is behind the disparity. Others say the causes are more complex. A study is underway to find out what's behind the imbalance.

THE NUMBERS CAME OUT in late December when most Minnesotans were fixated on the arrival of the year 2000. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety report shows the imprisonment ratio between blacks and whites has grown to canyon-size proportions. Tom Johnson was a member of the committee which prepared the report. (Listen to interview. ) "The national average is seven-and-a-half, and that is simply unacceptable and that fact is the precipitating reason behind our study," he said.
Year Total All(a) White(b) Black(b)
1990 739,980 699,416 350,700 340,300
1995 1,085,022 1,021,059 487,400 509,800
1996 1,137,722 1,068,123 511,300 528,600
1997 1,195,498 1,121,663 541,700 548,900

Note: Previous estimates for 1996 by gender and race have been revised. Sentenced prisoners are those with a sentence of more than one year.
(a) Includes Asians, Pacific Islanders, American Indians, Alaska natives, and other racial groups.
(b)The numbers for gender and race were estimated and runded to the nearest 100.

Source: U.S. Department of Justice

Former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson directs the Council on Crime and Justice, a Minneapolis-based study group. He says the numbers show that many more black men than white men are arrested and eventually put in prison. What his organization wants to find out, Johnson says, is if racism plays a role in what happens to black men at stops along the way in the criminal justice.

"What's happening with the decisions being made by the police - whether to release someone or not release someone, whether to bring a case to the city or county attorney's office, and once it gets to the county attorney whether to charge or not to charge, and what happens when cases get dismissed prior to sentencing - we know very little about that," Johnson says.

Minnesota's ratio of 25 black men imprisoned for every white man is so dramatic that the obvious reaction is it's a statistical fluke. The number is from 1997 figures gathered by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The ratio measures the rate at which black men and white men are sent to prison in the state. The number must be viewed in context; Minnesota has one of the smallest prison populations in the country - under 6,000 adults. Even so, the high black imprisonment rate pulses like a warning light because the number of black men in Minnesota is also very small; they're about one-and-a-half percent of the population.

"There are a lot of children who are without fathers to participate in their lives," says Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Cheryl Ramstad Hvass. "We see from the research that if a young person's parent is in prison, their liklihood of ending up in prison is increased, so from society's standpoint I think those are reasons enough to examine if there are reasons contributing to this imbalance."

A Predictable Reaction
A predictable reaction to the disproportionate number of black men behind bars is they committed the crime, they should do the time. But are black men put in prison at a higher rate because, in fact, they commit more crime than white men, or because the system is racist?

Rates of drug use between blacks and whites are about the same, says University of Minnesota law professor john powell. Why, then, are blacks arrested, charged and convicted at much higher rates for drug use than whites? Powell says blaming poverty, dropping out of school and other causes doesn't account for the disparity.
"I believe it's some of both," says University of Minnesota law professor john powell, who directs the law school's race and poverty center. He says black men commit violent crime at a higher rate than white men. But rates of drug use between blacks and whites are about the same. Why, then, are blacks arrested, charged and convicted at much higher rates for drug use than whites? Powell says blaming poverty, dropping out of school and other causes doesn't account for the disparity.

"If you try to explain everything in terms of poverty, criminal activity, in terms of education, when you finish all that, there's still an amount that's unexplained that must be in the strong sense, or might be in the weak sense must be due to racial bias."

News of Minnesota's higher imprisonment rate for blacks broke seven years ago. The ratio was 16-1 then. Justice Alan Page was part of the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Race Bias which found harsher treatment for black people, or more lenient treatment for whites, was common.

"We found that people of color are incarcerated more often, are given longer sentences, they receive higher bails, they are subject to less favorable plea bargains and on and on and on," according to Page."

Page and the task force found white crime suspects were more likely to receive a summons to appear in court. Blacks were more often arrested and held in jail. When sentenced, whites were more likely to be fined, blacks more likely to serve time. Page says the 1993 findings need to be backed up with better numbers before anyone can weigh in with prescriptions for how people in the criminal justice system need to change their behavior.

"We can work to change people's hearts or we can work to change people's conduct. I'm one of those that if their hearts wanna come along that's fine, but I want to change the conduct, that's what's important to me."

The Statistics in Black and White
The racial imbalance in Minnesota's criminal justice system is apparent from the start. The pie chart on Lieutenant Rob Allen's computer screen at his third precinct police office on Lake Street in south Minneapolis tells the story. It shows bright green, blue and red slices for 1998 crimes, the most recent year for which complete numbers are available.

"Twenty percent of the suspects reported to us as suspects in crime are white, and something like 66 percent are black." according to Allen. "When we actually make arrests in those same categories, 55 percent are black."

A relative handful of people - black and white, Minneapolis Police Lieutenant Rob Allen says - commit most of the crime in the city.
The numbers, Allen says, must be viewed with caution. They do not mean that 66 of black men in Minneapolis are lawbreakers. Many of the suspects are the same person. A relative handful of people - black and white, Allen says - commit most of the crime in the city. The city's policing strategy called CODEFOR directs extra patrols to high crime areas. Once there, officers stop people guilty of minor infractions so police can check their identity to see if they're wanted as suspects in other crimes.

"I think we do aggressive policing in areas where there are high crimes, we target our resources there. I think that people who commit crimes, jaywalking is a crime, traffic violations are crime, are apt to be stopped by the police," says Allen.

Critics say the CODEFOR strategy creates the air of an army of occupation in poor neighborhoods. They argue it targets poor people generally, black men specifically by saturating neighborhoods where they live with police officers ready to pounce on anyone. Defenders, including police officials, say CODEFOR policing catches criminals and point to Minneapolis' two-year, double digit drop in crime as proof.

Minnesota is hardly alone in its disproportionate imprisonment rate for black men. Wisconsin and Iowa also have high rates. The national imprisonment rate of black men has leaped forward due in part to our 25-year-long war on crime. Federal and state prison populations have grown ten-fold from the mid-l970s. Black men account for about half of federal and state prison admissions even though they are only about seven percent of the country's population.

"Our rate of incarceration internationally is second only to Russia, we lock our citizens up at a rate five to 10 times other industrialized nations, so we've really expanded the use of imprisonment in ways that have never been done before in any democratic society," notes Marc Mauer, a researcher for the Sentencing Project, Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.
Justice Alan Page was part of the Minnesota Supreme Court Task Force on Race Bias which found harsher treatment for black people, or more lenient treatment for whites, was common.
Listen to interview.

In neighborhoods, the war on crime is often played out with raids on crack houses, traffic stops and other roundups. Calls for a crackdown on crime are loudest from residents in poor neighborhoods. People in Minneapolis raised a clamor when the city's 1995 murder rate - 97 killings - set a record. More than half the murders were tied to gang rivalries over drug dealing. Since then Minneapolis' homicide rate has dropped by nearly half.

Still, the Twin Cities drug trade is flourishing. St. Paul police chief William Finney says one reason more black men than white men end up in the criminal justice system is the way drugs are sold. Many powder cocaine users, Finney says, are white, and confine their dealing and use to homes and offices. Many crack users and sellers, he says, are black men who do business on the street.

"You have to understand police departments are uniquely set up to deal with crime that is witnessed by the police officer and we are very reactive, we are not proactive in that we are not set up to be deep investigatory agencies," says Finney. "It's not to say African-Americans are the only people who use illegal drugs. It's just that we go in a very, very visible fashion to purchase those drugs, whereas other communities go behind closed doors or in a very surreptitious manner, more surrepitious manner."

Longer prison sentences for drug dealing have put a disproportionate number of black men behind bars. Federal sentences for crack dealers are longer than prison time for powder cocaine pushers. Minnesota's crack and cocaine sentencing discrepcancy was ruled unconstitutional. So, lawmakers increased the cocaine sentence. "Minnesota now has for violent offenses, some of the longest sentences in the country," says Tom Johnson, who notes that in 1989 Minnesota lawmakers doubled sentences for violent crimes. "So what we're seeing now is an increasing prison population not due so much at all to the increasing number of people coming to the front gate of the prison, but due to the fact that people who do come are staying for longer periods of time."

"Captured In Its Past"
Nearly two-thirds of the people who came before Hennepin County drug court Judge Kevin Burke last year were black. Burke says black men with a poor education, no job, no money, selling drugs in neighborhoods saturated with police patrols are destined to be over-represented in prison.
"Over time we'll end up in a huge crisis of race relations between the communities of color," says Kevin Burke of the Hennepin County drug court.
Listen to interview.

Racism, Burke says, is also a factor. "Minnesota as a state is unfortunately captured in it's past," he contends. "Senator Humphrey fought for civil rights therefore this state is a very liberal state when it comes to civil rights and in fact we're not any different than a lot of other places. Racism occurs in Minnesota courts, and the first part of recovery is admitting you have a problem, so it seems to me we would be far healthier saying, yes, there is racism in society, there's institutional racism in systems like the criminal justice system and in admitting that we'd be in a better position to recover."

The reaction of residents in Minneapolis' Longfellow neighborhood to the disparate imprisonment rate for black men in Minnesota ranges from surprise to a wish that more perpetrators regardless of color would be put behind bars. The all-white group is spending a weekday evening at a regular community crime prevention meeting at a neighborhood park building. Longfellow's population is diverse. The neighborhood's crime rate is relatively low.

"You'd think the prison ratio would reflect the population ratio," notes one . They are coming here because the benefits are better here and that is a known fact. So why are they coming here? Not to work probably, but they do have to come here for crime," adds another. And a third says, "I'd like to see the ratio change not by letting black people out but by putting more white people away when I think they should."

Behind-the-Bars Conversations
The reaction of black men behind bars to the huge disparity in the imprisonment ratio between whites and blacks runs the gamut. Visitors to Lino Lakes state prison just north of the Twin Cities pass through metal, elevator-like doors to enter the fenced-in collection of one story buildings connected with walkways and courtyards.

In 1995, AMICUS began a partnership with the Minneapolis Urban League to help connect community members with African-Americans who are incarcerated. Taking the name RAFIKI (Swahili for "friend,") this new initiative encouraged many volunteers from the African-American community to reach out, one on one, and visit inmates who wanted to connect with the community in a more positive way. In the RAFIKI program, inmates visit one-to-one with trained community volunteers in prison visiting rooms. Learn more.
A dozen-and-a-half black men wearing blue jeans, work shirts and running shoes meet once a week with Gregory McMoore who works for Amicus, the Minneapolis-based private, non-profit prison counseling program. Most of the men will be released soon, and McMoore is trying to help them prepare for life again on the outside. A floor fan stirs the warm, stuffy room air in the meeting room.

"You have laws, you have policies, you have other different legislative things that's involved in the whole process of what's behind the disparity rate in Minnesota," one prisoner says. "You have different stigmas that's attached to other people that emigrate here from other states to Minnesota. So you have a lot of elements that contribute to the whole overall situation. But I think the major influence that is responsible for the disparity rate is white supremacy."

Another says, "It's not only racism, it's also the fact that most kids think today the way to graduate to manhood is to come to prison. I've been watching people come to prison for forty years, almost. My family started years ago back in the seventies when my mother was taking food up to the prisoners in St. Cloud. And the door keeps revolving, we get out, we come back, we get out, we come back. There's nothing that's ever been there to help once we've stepped out into the system. It's a set up."

But racism doesn't get the full load of blame from another. "My Daddy taught me, you go to work and take care of your family, but I wanted a fast track of it. And that's why I ended up here, so it's not all about our parent's nature. I believe that we as black men, I don't care, you can put racism to it as you want, but I believe we as black men have abandoned our families, that's why our son's in a bind here. And when they look outside the door they don't see brothers goin' to work, they don't see them carrying briefcases, they see them carrying beepers. That's the format they have in their life, they have no mentors in their life. They have no one there standing sayin' 'this is the way you need to do this son, this is the way you need to do this. And they have nobody to ask questions of because we're not there, we're here."
"I believe we as black men have abandoned our families, that's why our son's in a bind here. And when they look outside the door they don't see brothers goin' to work, they don't see them carrying briefcases, they see them carrying beepers."

- Inmate

The conversation swirls around the room. The men direct their anger at racism and unfair treatment by police. They talk about the disappointment with their own behavior. They blame their lot in life on growing up in violent neighborhoods or living with addicted parents, but they also blame themselves for bad decisions made about how to live their own lives. The meeting ends with handshakes all around as the men return to their rooms and prepare for lights out.

Amicus counselor Gregory McMoore says racism is one of the reasons there's an imbalance between black and white men sent to prison in Minnesota. However he says attitude - a swagger, or way of dress or talking - are signs some black men carry what he calls HIV - Hood Infectious Virus - a diagnosis McMoore says means some of the men are headed for trouble.

"For anyone who grew up in urban America, you know what that means, it means a lifestyle, a demeanor, it means the way that some people feel they have to live their lives," McMoore says. "Unfortunately HIV means AIDS which means addiction, incarceration or death."

McMoore doesn't let white people off the hook in his anaylsis of the twenty-five-to-one black-to-white imprisonment ratio. To make it outside the prison walls, McMoore says, black men need to change their lives, and white people need to accept them. "Ninety-eight percent of the people who are incarcerated are coming out again, and one wants to believe they're coming out in a better frame of mind than when they went in. People don't feel good about themselves when they're undereducated, underemployed, when they're trying to make a go of it, and they're coming up against a system or society that makes it more difficult to be successful because of their culture or the culture of their skin, rather than maybe celebrating our diversity and looking at it as an asset and maybe building on it."

Up Close and Personal
African American males are six percent of the U.S. population, however they comprise more than 50 percent of all prison inmates. In the California Youth Authority system, 75 percent of the young people held in custody are young people of color. In addition to determining who goes to jail and prison, racism in the administration of justice also is felt in terms of prison sentences. African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans receive on the average much longer sentences than whites. For example in the federal prison system, African American sentences are 20 percent longer than whites for similar crimes. These facts are not only limited to men of color.

From Race, Class, and Incarceration
Campaign for Equity-Restorative Justice
Corrections Commissioner Cheryl Ramstad Hvass says white Minnesotans need to examine their behavior to see if it is part of the problem. "I have children who are of a different race. When my daughter was in pre-school as a three-year old, she was being taunted by some of the preschoolers. So I've had to deal with it very up close and personally and been hurt by some of the same things that I think do exist, but it is not going to be easy to get to the root of this problem. I hope to be part of the solution, because I not only believe it's important to address the problem now but it's only going to get worse if we don't deal with it at this point."

Hennepin County judge Kevin Burke is more direct in his warning. He says white people are ignoring society's race problems. Relying on police and prisons to deal with the symptoms, Burke says, creates conditions which threaten the country's future.

"Over time we'll end up in a huge crisis of race relations between the communities of color," Burke says. "There are way too many young kids, young African-American kids, young Hispanics who have no trust whatsoever in the criminal justice system, and over time, that's bad, that's real bad. You can't end up having, as one police chief I remember and admired a lot who said, 'You can't have police being an occupational army in communities of color and not understand you're gonna really have a problem in the long run.'"

Results from the Council on Crime and Justice study of racism in Minnesota 's criminal justice system are expected this fall.