Robinson: Steps toward colorblind justice
WASHINGTON For all who believe in colorblind justice and want to see fewer African-American and Hispanic men caught up in the system there are two items of good news: a judge's ruling ordering changes in New York's "stop and frisk" policy and Attorney General Eric Holder's initiative to keep nonviolent drug offenders out of prison.
First, "stop and frisk." Mayor Michael Bloomberg is having a hissy fit over U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin's finding that the policy amounted to "indirect racial profiling." On his weekly radio show, the mayor wouldn't even say Scheindlin's name, calling her "some woman" who knows "absolutely zero" about policing. In an op-ed article for The Washington Post, Bloomberg went so far as to accuse Scheindlin of being "ideologically driven."
If and when Bloomberg calms down, I'd like to ask him the fundamental question posed not in these words, of course by Scheindlin's ruling: Would it kill you to stop and frisk some white guys, too?
Blacks and Hispanics make up about half of New York City's population but were targeted in 86 percent of the 532,911 "stops" last year under Bloomberg's policy, which encourages police to detain and search individuals if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person "committed, is committing, or is about to commit" a crime. The reason most often cited for a stop is that the individual made "furtive" movements.
In nine out of 10 cases, the person is stopped and sometimes frisked but no evidence is found of any offense. Bloomberg argues that this kind of proactive policing actually prevents crime, and he credits "stop and frisk" for making New York the safest big city in the country.
I'm all for safe streets. I'm also aware that there is no consensus crediting "stop and frisk" with any impact on the crime rate, but I'm willing to accept the premise that an active police presence can deter criminals. My problem is that African-Americans and Hispanics are being singled out disproportionately for these arbitrary searches.
Bloomberg says this is because most violent crime occurs in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, with black and Hispanic victims. By all means, police should continue walking and cruising these beats. But the numbers indicate that African-Americans and Hispanics are being given too much "stop and frisk" scrutiny and that whites are being given too little.
According to an analysis by the New York Civil Liberties Union, blacks and Hispanics who are stopped are more likely than whites to be frisked. But just 2 percent of blacks and Hispanics who are frisked are discovered to be carrying weapons, while 4 percent of whites who are frisked have weapons. So if the aim is to find illegal guns, police should frisk more whites.
Why such fuss over a few minutes of inconvenience and indignity? Because blacks and Hispanics who come into contact with the criminal justice system for any reason are more likely to be arrested, charged and convicted than whites, and are likely to serve longer prison sentences.
Of more than 26,000 stops last year for alleged marijuana offenses, for example, 61 percent were of African-Americans and only 9 percent were of whites. But surveys show that whites are equally or more likely to be marijuana users. Police don't find white potheads because they're not looking for them.
We know that nationwide, according to federal figures, African-Americans are four times as likely as whites to be arrested, charged and imprisoned for minor drug offenses. Once young black and Hispanic men enter the criminal justice system, too often they become trapped in a loop of incarceration, release, unemployment and recidivism.
On the national level, Holder has taken direct aim at this vicious cycle with the announcement last week that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders will no longer face federal charges that carry long mandatory prison sentences.
Holder is giving new instructions to federal prosecutors and also supporting legislation that has received bipartisan support in the Senate, where some conservatives now see excessive prison terms as a waste of money.
"We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and to forget," Holder said in a speech to the American Bar Association. President Obama is expected to make prison reform one of his priorities this fall.
Ending the presumption that African-American and Hispanic men are beyond redemption would be a powerful legacy for the first black president and the first black attorney general to leave behind.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.