Gov. Jim Doyle created a commission to study racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Apparently, the idea of studying racial disparities in anything is considered the sort of muddle-headed concern that sets tongues waging on the right, where any mention of race in society is met with feigned "how dare you?" indignity. Acting like they are threatened by what the commission might say, the wing-nuts conducted a pre-emptive strike, calling on a friendly law professor from Marquette’s increasingly right-wing faculty to say the disparity in Wisconsin is not that different from the national average and what’s so wrong with racial disparity, anyway.
Xoff and Soglin have pointed out the obvious bias in the McAdams approach to the study or article or whatever he is calling it these days. You do have to kind of admire the kind of balls it takes to end a piece that screams to be taken statistically seriously with a long, dubious anecdote from talk-radio’s Clarence Thomas wanna-be, James Harris. I guess the message is that we should go ahead a lock up more blacks in the hopes that Harris can walk his dog in peace.
Although McAdams need not be taken seriously, certainly the problem should be. The issue isn’t whether there is racial disparity in the criminal justice system (even McAdams admits that) – the question is how it manifests itself and what, if anything, we can do about it.
Since I began my career as a criminal defense attorney 21 years ago – the vast majority of my clients being appointments from the State Public Defender – I do have some perspective on the position my clients (I would guess 85% black) face in the criminal justice system and in society as a whole.
McAdams spends some time reviewing statistics for those released from prison after serving time. For both an identification of the issues and possible solutions, I would look at the time before someone is locked up; long before they commit a serious crime. It is that time that affects them more if they do end up getting accused a felony or even a misdemeanor; whether they get out on bail, and how they are sentenced, even whether they get charged in the first place. And, because of conditions on the street and the nature and result of interactions with police in their own neighborhoods, blacks in the city start at a significant disadvantage in the criminal justice system.
Seeing the difference in treatment is as easy as crossing the street.
I walk downtown everyday, to and from the courthouse and my office on 7th – I’m sorry – James Lovell and Wisconsin. Often, I’ll come up to a crosswalk with no traffic headed in either direction and the Don’t Walk sign glowing orange-red. Several African-Americans will be standing there, dutifully waiting for the Walk sign. I step out and start to cross. The others watch, then gingerly make their own way across the street, against the light, figuring if the white guy can get away with it, so can they. This time, anyway.
Black people in Milwaukee are far more likely than I am to get jaywalking tickets. They are far more likely to get a loitering ticket hanging around on a street corner or on the front stoop of a house. They are more likely to get a disorderly conduct ticket for talking loud out in the street or a noise complaint from a neighbor. The unpaid tickets result in commitments – to jail – for non-payment or a driver’s license revocation or they’ll take your income tax refund.
In fact, black Milwaukeeans are far more likely to have any contact with a police officer. And when they do, the quality of that interaction is dramatically different. They are far more likely to get searched, to get their name run for warrants, to have everyone around them asked for ID. This is a world most white folks are completely unfamiliar with. Officer Friendly conducting a frisk of your person and asking if you have "anything to hide"? Unheard of for us, but that’s the way it is for the citizens of Black Milwaukee, who often find themselves on the wrong end of a near police state.
Those who want to get off the streets and drive or ride in a car are also treated much differently. The pain of a ticket is one thing, but getting stopped driving down the road by police is no big deal for me. They come up to the window, get your license, check it and come back with a ticket, a warning or a pat on the back for good driving.
If you want to know what the difference is for a black person, ask a black professional. He’ll tell you that, while I would be able to drive around for months with a broken taillight, he will be stopped or any equipment violation, even something ludicrous like having snow covering a back-up light. Once stopped, he’ll tell you he will often be pulled out of the car and frisked. Even dressed up for a night out, his passengers will be asked for ID and run for warrants. He will be asked if the police can search the car, for no reason at all. He will describe an often humiliating, disrespectful encounter.
All this scrutiny on the streets and in cars, of course, results in small matters suddenly resulting in arrests. Unpaid fines, certainly. Sometimes, recreational drugs are found, open intoxicants, even a gun (unless it’s unloaded and cased in the trunk, illegal to carry in a car). You might try to avoid an outstanding warrant and give your brother’s name (obstructing). You might even try to run (resisting). Did you know that you can be arrested and made to bail out of jail for any traffic violation, like a bad license light? Don’t worry – if you’re a white guy, you probably won’t have to worry about it. If you are black, you do.
The result is that few black people who have lived in the city for a long time have a totally clean record if they are arrested for a misdemeanor or worse. The stupid tickets they got on the street or in a car will follow them to the criminal system and may affect charging and bail decisions. There are other issues in the more advanced stages of the system that result in the disparity, of course, and perhaps I’ll address those in future posts.
But the combined effect of the drip-drip-drip of petty ticket enforcement and undue scrutiny during police encounters results in a sense of distrust and injustice in the inner city. The stark fact is that young black men are all too familiar with the inside of a police car and a jail cell, if only for silly tickets. Young white men are much less likely to face the same scrutiny, build the same record or be treated the same way if accused of something more serious.
The bottom line is that blacks and whites don’t come into the criminal system with the same baggage. It should be no surprise that they come out of the system with different results.