Editorial: Re-evaluate procedure in light of inequalities


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At last week’s City Council meeting, Iowa City officials were presented with a recent study from the Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning regarding racial disparity in the Johnson County juvenile criminal-justice system.

According to the study, “Local Discussions Related to Disproportionate Minority Contact,” black youths aged 10-17 are ] more likely to be referred to juvenile detention than their white counterparts. Over the past five years, 19.1 of every 100 black juvenile offenders were referred to detention compared with only 11.6 for whites.

It is not the case that black youths have simply been committing more serious crimes, however.

Dave Kuker, the executive officer who presented this report to the City Council, noted that white and minority juvenile offenders were equally likely to commit more serious offenses such as violent crime and theft, but minorities were more likely to be arrested and detained for low-level misdemeanors.

Given the fact that black kids are being detained at a higher rate than white kids for the same crimes, it points to some kind of systematic imbalance at play in Johnson County. County officials and Iowa City officials must take action to correct this phenomenon.

The racial disparity in the juvenile criminal-justice system mirrors the racial disparity in the adult justice system in Johnson County and the United States as a whole. In Johnson County, 5 percent of the population is black, but blacks make up 40 percent of the inmates.

According to Bruce Western’s 2007 book on the criminal-justice system titled Inequality and Justice in America, black men are almost 10 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. Western also found that black men were much more likely than white men to be arrested for drug crimes, despite being no more likely to use drugs than white men.

Explaining these overwhelming racial discrepancies in criminal justice is difficult. Some of this phenomenon may be due the police spending a more of their time in high-risk areas that tend to be disproportionately populated by minorities. This is the explanation offered by the Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine.

“Ninety percent of the time we are called to a particular place, it’s generally not cases of self-initiated arrests,” Hargadine said. “Now, we’re being criticized for disparate numbers, but we’re being called there. Doesn’t that mean something?”

This is a fair point. Arrests are more likely to occur in places where police are summoned more often. But this does not explain the difference in juvenile detention rates between black and white offenders. Black juveniles are sentenced more harshly for similar crimes; therefore, there must be another phenomenon at work in the county’s courtrooms.

According to an August 2012 study from the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Institute for Law and Economics, that phenomenon can sometimes be racial bias. The study — “Do Judges Vary in Their Treatment of Race?” — found that there is significant variation between judges in terms of the rate at which they incarcerate minorities, meaning that racial biases are a contributing factor to judicial inequality in the United States.

The Johnson County criminal-justice system — the police, the courts, and the officials who oversee them — must be open to re-evaluating their procedures in light of these disparities. Inequality must not be allowed to continue.

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