In New York, home to the Big Apple, one of the world's most diverse cities seen by many as the embodiment of the "melting pot" ideal, recent data illustrating high rates of racial disparity in the use of incarceration should sound alarms.
African Americans in New York state are incarcerated at nine times the rate of whites -- the ninth highest rate in the country.
Why do we see these inequities? The knee-jerk response might be that African Americans commit more crimes and, thus, are imprisoned in disproportionately higher numbers.
However, while different crime rates partly explain these figures, any serious consideration of racial disparity must move beyond arrest rates to examine the underlying causes of these disconcerting statistics in greater depth.
No single factor has exacerbated disparities in rates of arrest and incarceration over the past 30 years more than the "war on drugs." Since 1980, the number of people in state prisons for drug offenses increased more than 1,200 percent and now represents one of every five people incarcerated.
Much of this growth has occurred in communities of color. Despite making up 13 percent of the general population and 14 percent of regular illegal drug users, more than a third of people arrested for drug offenses and more than half of people in prison for drug offenses are African American.
In New York state, the numbers are particularly stark: More than 90 percent of people incarcerated for drug offenses are African American or Latino.
While racial disparities in arrests for violent crimes are largely a product of who is committing the crime, in the realm of drug offenses it is more a question of where the police pursue the "war on drugs."
Drug abuse in middle-income communities is treated primarily as a health problem, while in low-income communities it is addressed as a criminal justice problem.
As the American Bar Association's Justice Kennedy Commission observed, "There are discretionary decisions made by criminal justice officials that contribute to the racial disparity that exists in the criminal justice system."
Unequal access to resources for African Americans continues after arrest as well. Public defender systems, the only refuge for many African-American defendants, are chronically underfunded and largely lack enforceable standards for representation.
In addition to undermining the constitutional guarantee of a right to an attorney, the failure to provide effective indigent defense perverts court processing by limiting a defendant's access to many pretrial investigatory resources, encouraging plea bargains and discouraging the open hearing of claims of official misconduct or innocence.
Finally, the machinations of the criminal justice system do not exist in isolation and these disparities in incarceration rates should be seen as indicators of problems in other spheres of society. The disproportionate impact of chronic poverty, homelessness, inadequate investment in education, and reduced employment opportunities on communities of color are reflected in high rates of incarceration.
Racial inequalities are as impacted by fundamental shifts in the manufacturing economy over the latter half of the 20th century as they are by practices of police, prosecutors and judges.
Fortunately, New Yorkers can look to recent developments for encouragement. In 2004, lawmakers finally took steps to address some of the more controversial components of the "Rockefeller drug laws." These reforms to the nation's most notorious state sentencing scheme are a promising first step in reversing direction in the drug war and addressing racial inequities in the criminal justice system.
Moreover, a 2006 state report that identified a "grievous lack of adequate funding" for indigent defense and called for the creation of a statewide commission to establish standards and coordinate public defense services holds promise for an improved court system.
Finally, the continuing decline in New York's prison population, coupled with a commensurate decrease in crime during this period, provides additional reasons for optimism and opportunity for advocacy.
Now is an ideal time to identify and build upon the factors that have contributed to these encouraging trends. New York leaders should reconsider past proposals to establish a commission to study closing some prisons, while revisiting the calibration of sentencing laws and seeking ways to expand proven alternatives to incarceration.
Lawmakers also should use the occasion of this report to revisit how criminal justice policy is framed. Reforms to law enforcement practices, indigent defense and sentencing are crucial, but they do little to address the underlying causes of crimes in neighborhoods.
This calls for a broad range of community stakeholders involved in education, employment and housing to offer strategies for investment in these communities, both to improve daily life and to promote public safety.
King is a policy analyst with the Sentencing Project based in Washington, D.C.
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