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Blacks disproportionately targeted by US justice system

June 20, 2020

Black people make up a much greater proportion of the US prison population than whites. This is down to more than a century of systemic legal injustices — racist policing practices are just one part of the problem.

Prisoners at Arizona State Prison-Kingman in the USA
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Breen

One call that has been growing ever louder during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the United States after the police killing of George Floyd is "Defund the police." This slogan can be read on banners from Washington to Los Angeles, and activists say that action finally has to be taken to curb police violence against African Americans and other minorities. Some large cities have already responded, announcing that they will completely restructure their police forces and/or reduce their budgets.

But another aspect of life in the US that impacts just as much on Black people as police violence is receiving far less media attention: The country's justice system also discriminates against people with darker skins. In the early 2010, statistics made the rounds that one out of three Black men would spend some time in prison, compared with one out of 17 white men.

This figure is disputed. But in May, the renowned Pew Research Center published statistics that speak for themselves. In 2018, Black people made up 12% of the US adult population but accounted for 33% of people serving a prison sentence, while white people made up 63% of the US adult population, yet just 30% of prison inmates. These figures are drawn from reports by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistics agency of the US Department of Justice. Certain age groups are particularly prominent: in 2018, one out of about 21 Black men aged between 35 and 39 was in prison, according to the Pew Research Center.

Anti-racism protest in New York City, June 7, 2020
Protests against police racism have been taking place across the US since the killing of George FloydImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S. Wenig

This inequality seems to be gradually changing for the better. According to a report by the think tank Council on Criminal Justice, the difference between the number of imprisoned Black people and white people fell considerably between 2000 and 2016. In 2000, the ratio of Black people to white people in state prisons was still more than 8-to-1, whereas in 2016 it was around 5-to-1.

History of injustices

That is, of course, still a large disparity. And it has to do with the fact that the US, whose jails hold more than 2.2 million people, or 22% of the world's prison population, has a long history of racism in its prison system.

The 2016 documentary film 13th by director Ava DuVernay shows how the 13th Amendment was abused after slaves were liberated following the American Civil War. The amendment states that slavery and forced labor are forbidden in the US — "except as a punishment for crime." Wealthy white people had lost their labor force in one fell swoop, but had their ways of remedying the situation: In the years after the Civil War, African Americans were arrested for trivial offenses and had to do hard labor as part of their prison sentence.

Then, in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon announced the "war on drugs." This campaign against drug-related crime hit the Black community hard — and that was the whole point. In 13th, the former Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman could be heard referring to African Americans as being among the "enemies" of the Nixon government. He said that while it was not possible to make it illegal to be Black, it was possible to get the public to associate Black people with heroin. This meant that "we could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news."

"Mandatory minimums" were also introduced. These meant that long prison sentences could be imposed for minor possession of drugs. For drugs like crack, which was generally less expensive than cocaine and more often found in the possession of Black people, these mandatory punishments were much longer and handed down for smaller amounts than in the case of drugs like cocaine, which was generally more expensive and more often found in the possession of white people. The "mandatory minimums" leave judges with more or less no discretionary power; even if they would like to give the person involved a second chance, they have to hand down decadeslong jail sentences.

Poverty is also punished via the bail bond system. A person charged with a crime who cannot afford bail is required to stay in jail until their trial takes place — often for months or even years. Here, African Americans are also disproportionately affected.

US Democratic congressional candidate Cori Bush
Democratic candidate Cori Bush, seen here standing where Michael Brown was killed, wants more help for communitiesImage: DW/C. Bleiker

Preventing criminalization

Problems with the US justice system go back a long way, but the "Defund the police" activists are not letting themselves be deterred. Cori Bush, a Democrat running for Congress in the state of Missouri, told DW that "instead of us spending so much money on tear gas in our police departments, instead of spending all of this money on military-grade weapons and military-grade gear and vehicles," cities should invest in schools, health care and job training programs.

Bush wants to win a seat in the electoral district of Missouri where Ferguson is situated — the city where the Black Lives Matter movement first rose to national prominence in 2014 after the Black teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a white policeman.

Diverting money from police budgets to community aid would have direct effects in bringing down the incarceration rate among African Americans, according to Bush. "I've been in a place where I didn't know where my next meal was coming from. I made sure my children ate but I didn't know what I was going to eat," Bush said, pointing out that such situations had a negative mental impact on people. She is certain that if there were less poverty, fewer young people without future prospects and fewer hungry children, not as many people would end up in prison.

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A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Nixon adviser John Ehrlichman. The department apologizes for the error.

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker