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General News    H1'ed 4/29/10

Ladies and Gentlemen: The U.S. (in)Justice System

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I've been reading, talking, and thinking a lot about justice lately. And the deeper I get into it, the more evident it is that our justice system isn't meeting our needs. What we want, I think, is a justice system that produces not just rehabilitation, but redemption. Is it any wonder that Shawshank speaks to us the way it does?

Redemption does happens in the real world. Consider the case of Wilbert Rideau, who in 1961 killed a bank teller during a botched robbery and served 44 years in prison (decades longer than others who had committed similar crimes) before finally being released. While in prison, Rideau not only "became rehabilitated" but started an all-Black magazine in the prison and, after mandatory desegregation laws were finally implemented (Rideau is Black), took over as the editor of the main prison publication, The Angolite. NPR summarized his next 25 years:

For 25 years, Rideau reported on events that were taking place within Angola's walls -- covering topics such as the mishandling of AIDS funds for prisoners, the brutality of electrocutions and the pervasive sexual violence inside the prison. During Rideau's years as editor, The Angolite won the George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award -- and Rideau became a correspondent for Fresh Air, reporting on what it was like to live in solitary confinement and how prisoners feared for their safety on a daily basis.

Remarkably, considering the violence and inhumane treatment he describes, Rideau says that prison saved him by introducing him to reading and writing, which in turn gave his life meaning.

Rideau's story is as inspiring as anything produced by Hollywood. Yet, had it not been for a fortuitous court ruling having nothing to do with him, Rideau's redemption would not have happened at all. Rideau was sentenced to death for his crime and lived on death row until 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the death penalty (temporarily, it turned out), giving Rideau the second chance he needed.

Stories of redemption are, unfortunately, all too rare. However, despite the anti-segregation laws, much of the racial bias Rideau experienced continues to pervade the entire criminal justice system.

It starts with law enforcement

In the wake of Arizona's new legislation permitting law enforcement officials to stop anyone suspected of being undocumented and to demand documentation of legal status, racial profiling is suddenly getting front page coverage. But though it might be a relatively new approach to controlling the border, perceptions of racially biased policing practices have been around for a long time.

For example, data from a national sample of 7,034 people stopped by police in previous 12 months indicate that Black men are 35 percent more likely than white men to report being stopped by police for a traffic violation (Lundman & Kaufman, 2003).

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Though this particular study examined perceptions rather than actual "objective" data, where available (not all states require police departments to report or even track racial information during stops), such data consistently support the perception of bias.

Consider some recent racial profiling data from my home state of Illinois, where the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) has been compiling racial profiling data for almost 10 years. According to the 2008 data (the most recent available at the time of this writing), "minority drivers" were 13% more likely to be be stopped (after controlling for demographic differences in population) and more than twice as likely to have their car searched (this requires consent but consent is given more than 90% of the time).

When confronted with such data, police officers (and chiefs) usually respond that they are merely doing their job -- that the racial discrepancy in stops and searches merely reflects group differences in criminal behavior. Yet, the city's own data suggest otherwise. Those consensual searches? They yielded contraband (either weapons or drugs) for 15% of the "minority drivers" compared to almost 25% of "Caucasian drivers (see arrows at bottom of table below). If there were true probably cause, that kind of difference wouldn't happen.

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Of course, law enforcement is just one half of the justice system. There is also the criminal trial and the appeals that often follow. Unfortunately, this part of the process is no less biased.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity and courses on restorative justice.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the outcomes associated with restorative responses via Conflict 180.

In addition to conflict and restorative (more...)

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