Though race has little to tell us about a person’s character, notions of race still lead to unequal treatment in the United States. These racial disparities are perhaps most apparent in the U.S. legal system.

Race and the Legal System

Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
Conor O’Neill’s

In his austere, white-walled office, David Harding, a University associate professor of sociology, explained the troubling state of the American legal system. To begin, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens per capita than any other nation in the world. Add to this highly punitive legal system a legacy of racial inequality, and you may begin to understand why U.S. inmates are disproportionately minority males.

On Feb. 27, Harding will join Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton and University of Toledo College of Law Associate Prof. Jelani Exum to examine racial disparities in the legal system and discuss ways to begin repairing them. The discussion, titled “Race and the Legal System,” is part of Conor O’Neill’s monthly Science Café series, which allows the public to discuss science-related topics with experts. During the Winter 2013 “Understanding Race” theme semester, the series has facilitated discussions on the sometimes uncomfortable topic of racial bias.

According to Harding, the American legal system wasn’t always so retributive, and the shift has been partially driven by racial tensions. Harding explained that in the 1960s, political speech, primarily from the right, attempted to divide the democratic voting base by churning up fear of crime, especially drug crime, and painting minorities as dangerous. This led to more draconian laws for drug-related offenses.

“As we’ve made things more punitive, the types of crimes blacks are more likely to commit carry the harsher punishments,” Harding said.

The most famous example of this is the gulf between the severity of sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession. Though pharmacologically the same drug, crack cocaine carries much higher penalties than powder cocaine, which is seen as a more “white-collar” drug.

Professor Exum saw these disparities in the sentencing process firsthand while working as a law clerk. She thinks that federal drug sentencing provides a representative picture of racial bias.

“If we break it down on the next level and look at race, blacks and Hispanics — but really mostly blacks if you’re looking at the national average — are receiving sentences far above your average white drug offender for the same offense,” Exum said. “In 2008, federal drug offenders who were white were sentenced to an average of 69.9 months of imprisonment, while those who were black were sentenced to an average of 110 months.”

Rather than blame overt racism, Exum pointed to a lack of clear goals in drug sentencing. In many states, there are no firm sentencing guidelines for drug offenses. Rather, sentencing is left to the discretion of the judge.

“(It) leaves room for bias and personal prejudice — not all conscious either — just fueled by views of who looks threatening, who doesn’t look threatening, who looks like me, who doesn’t look like me,” Exum said.

Exum said that concrete sentencing goals could help eliminate this disparity. Her work strives to incorporate these goals into the sentencing process.

Sheriff Clayton, the first African American sheriff in the history of Washtenaw County, is soft-spoken but extremely eloquent. Plaques honoring his achievements in the community adorn his office walls. Like Exum, he believes in taking action to eliminate racial bias in the legal system. Clayton spoke with steady intensity and conviction as he explained that it’s the duty of every officer of the law to examine his or her own biases.

“Most police officers come to the job with noble reasons trying to do the right thing, but like every other professions, we all have our biases,” Clayton said. “So the question becomes: Do our biases influence the decisions we make?”

When Clayton heard that a study conducted on the New Jersey turnpike showed that blacks were disproportionately targeted for traffic stops, he commissioned a similar study in Washtenaw County, the first study of its kind in a rural area. The results were less skewed than in New Jersey, but minorities were still targeted more than a fair statistical breakdown would allow. Clayton responded by calling in experts to teach a fair and impartial policing class to his entire staff.

Clayton stressed that his commitment isn’t a black versus white dichotomy. He aims to eliminate biases, even implicit ones, toward any group of individuals.

As an African American and a law enforcement official, Clayton brings a unique perspective to the conversation. He recalls growing up in the South with family members who had felt the acute sting of racial prejudice.

“I grew up with a grandfather telling me stories about the marches he went on and about how law enforcement used to sic dogs on them,” Clayton said. “In some ways, I’m in a profession that my grandfather did not have any love for. I think change comes in many different ways. You can be an external force for change or an internal force for change.”

Clayton added: “I represent law enforcement, but I also represent a community that has felt targeted by law enforcement at times.”

The participants at the Race and the Legal System have conversations that run the gamut from academic study of racial disparity, to legal expertise, to law enforcement experience. A former inmate who has been through the system will also discuss his experiences. Clayton feels that conversations with people from a multitude of perspectives can lead to positive change.

“Sometimes you can’t see what you need to change if you’re right in the middle of it,” Clayton said. “I know I have blind spots, I know they have blind spots. Hopefully they can light some of the blind spots that I have.”

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