The New Jim Crow: African Americans and Unlawful Convictions
Is Race a Factor in Convicting the Innocent?
The Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law published an essay by Andrew Taslitz titled, "Wrongly Accused: Is Race a Factor in Convicting the Innocent?" His essay uses both empirical and theoretical information to determine if race really increases the risk of being convicted.
For example, he examines a study conducted by Sam Gross and his colleagues about exonerations through 2003. Gross et. al found two things: that race played an important part in eyewitness misidentifications in rape cases and that, for juveniles exonerated, over 90% were Blacks or Hispanics, a results possibly due to eyewitness misidentifications in juvenile rape case, but also possibly from coercive police investigations, as 85% of juvenile exonorees who falsely confessed were Black.
Taslitz also cited findings from 2001 from Karen Parker and associates. Their studies concluded that a disproportionate percentage of wrongful convictions involved racial minorities. Parker and her colleagues explained that these numbers may be the result of power imbalance in society that impact the criminal justice system.
Additionally, Taslitz also cites data that shows Blacks sometimes alter their behavior as a defensive response--putting up hoodies, running away, etc--to these unwarranted suspicions in ways that increase suspicions further, causing more aggressive policing tactics, such as Stop and Frisk law.
Racial Stigmas and Black Character
Taslitz cites data from Sheri Lynn Johnson and others showing that Whites are more likely to believe that Blacks are more violent than Whites. Johnson continues to say that White jurors engage in the "ultimate [fundamental] attribution error," meaning we have a tendency to attribute behavior to a person's character rather than their circumstances. As a result, Whites who make this error believe that Blacks with bad behavior have a fundamental flaw in their nature rather than from a good or bad situation.
Police also suffer from this skewed perspective. Taslitz concludes that law enforcement officers are more likely to focus their surveillance on Black neighborhoods because they believe those are the areas most prone for crime. Most importantly, Taslitz believes the police are especially suspicious of young Black men, making them more likely to be stopped and searched. These frequent "Stop and Frisk" scenarios are examples of "microaggressions" that can harbor a feeling of resentment toward the police in Black men. However, Taslitz concludes, this can lead to a slippery slope; police can easily misinterpret this hostility as guilt, "thus confirming their preconceptions and leading them to heighten the aggressiveness of their surveillance and investigation."
Based on Taslitz's findings, I conclude that there are several factors that play into the wrongful conviction of Black and Hispanic males, however, data clearly shows a disproportionate number of minorities being surveilled, investigated, wrongfully convicted or worse--killed.
Blacks and the Criminal Justice System
The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group published a study last year on the staggering racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. They concluded that one in every black male born today can expect to go to prison at some point in their life, compared to one in every six Hispanic males, and one in every 17 white males.
Racial Disparity in Police Activity
The report determined that although the United State population is only 12% Black, in 2011 African Americans made up 30% of those people arrested for property offenses and 38% of people arrested for violent offenses. Additionally, Black youth make up 16% of the children population in the U.S, but make up 28% of all juvenile arrests.
To be sure, the study claims that one factor that contributes to these arrest rates is that racial minorities commit certain crimes at higher rates. Other studies suggest that socioeconomic factors are to blame.
More Shocking Stats from the ACLU (2010 Census)
In 2010, 12.6% of Americans were Black but: