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The Color of Justice in Minnesota
By William Wilcoxen
Minnesota Public Radio
June 14, 2001

Several dozen scholars, attorneys, policymakers, and law enforcement personnel put their heads together at the University of Minnesota Thursday, to take a closer look at the issue of racial bias in Minnesota's criminal justice system.

David Cole, Georgetown University professor and author of No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System, provided a national perspective on racial issues in the court system. He suggests investing more money into education, child care and job training in high-crime neighborhoods.
(MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
PARTICIPANTS QUICKLY MOVED PAST THE QUESTION POSED by summit organizers: Is there racial bias in the Minnesota criminal justice system? Most speakers simply agreed there is, and went on to discuss the nature of the bias, its effects, and what might be done about it. One number that helped them move past the "is there bias?" question is the imprisonment rate for black Minnesotans, which is 25 times greater than that of the state's white residents.

"Racial disparity is part of the criminal justice system everywhere," said Marc Mauer, an author who has studied criminal justice issues around the country. "The disparities we see in the prison system in Minnesota are among the greatest around the country, for two reasons - there is a high rate of black incarceration, but there's a very low rate of white incarceration. It's the combination of the two that makes Minnesota so extreme," Mauer says.

In a system that involves police offcers, prosecutors, judges, and juries, it's hard to pinpoint which variables are influenced by whose biases. Todd Jones, the former U.S. attorney for Minnesota, told the summit the criminal justice system likely reflects the same biases that infiltrate society's other institutions.

"We're always going to be dealing with the system, and biases being injected, because the system is us. The system is composed of human beings who make decisions that - in isolation - may not be caught, may not mean much. But cumulatively it has gotten us into the situation where we are today, where there is a vast disparity," Jones said.

Author Marc Mauer says, once they're in the judicial system, poor people are more likely than the wealthy to wind up in prison - reflecting a bias of class, as well as race. He acknowledges that eliminating bias is not viable, but says there are ways of controlling it.

"As we've seen in the area of racial profiling in recent years, if we begin to collect data on police practices, what we find is that some police officers use their discretion very appropriately and others don't. For the ones who don't, we can do training sessions with them, we can have more oversight, we can have more community involvement. There are structural processes we can put in place to try to control some of the excesses of human bias," said Mauer.

Some of the summit's speakers looked at obstacles to change. John powell, who directs the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty, says there are political benefits to emphasizing law and order. Powell says some candidates seek political support by promising to be tough on crime, which, in some circles, has become code for being tough on people of color. He says political support of the death penalty illustrates this.

john powell, director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty, says public support for the death penalty illustrates the political popularity of "getting tough on crime," which he says is code for being tough on people of color.
"If you look at statistics, all things being equal you're much more likely to get the death penalty if you're a person of color, particularly if you're black and the victim is white. It's not administered in a way that's racially neutral. And the policymakers know that. But they're not willing to take that on because they're playing to a constituency," he said.

Powell says the gradual diversification of decision-making positions in the criminal justice world is helping reduce bias. Several at the summit said attacking the causes of poverty, and fighting drugs with treatment over incarceration, would help crime-ridden neighborhoods without jailing much of their populations. A number of cities, including Minneapolis, have focused law enforcement efforts on selected neighborhoods most victimized by crime. David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and the summit's keynote speaker, suggested cities target those neighborhoods with resources other than police officers.

"Right now, we seem to be willing to invest in these communities, as long is it's by paying cops' salaries, prosecutors' salaries, judges' salaries, and by prison building," said Cole. "But what about spending some of that money for education, for after-school care, for job training, for health care, that will reduce the incidence of crime in those areas."

The summit was a project of the U of M's Institute on Criminal Justice, the Minnesota Journalism Center, and Minnesota Public Radio's Civic Journalism Initiative.

Related Audio:
  • Conference keynote address
  • Midmorning: Discussion on racial disparity in the justice system

    More about the project
  • The Color of Justice,MPR's Civic Journalism Initiative