Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Color of Criminal Justice




This piece of news made me smile:

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court yesterday reversed the murder conviction of a black Louisiana death-row inmate on the grounds that racial bias had infected the selection of his jury.

The 7-2 decision is the court's latest effort to press trial judges to intervene when a prosecutor moves to exclude blacks from the trial of a black defendant.

In yesterday's opinion, the court said a trial judge in Jefferson Parish, La., "committed clear error" by sitting idly while prosecutor James A. Williams excluded all the blacks in the jury pool for the 1996 trial of Allen Snyder, an African-American accused of stabbing to death a man his estranged wife was dating and wounding her.

The same prosecutor also referred to the trial as "his O.J. Simpson case" because, he said, the facts were "very, very similar" to the famous murder case in Los Angeles.

The court has "resoundingly told judges and prosecutors throughout the country that the practice of striking people from jury service based on their race must end," said Atlanta civil rights lawyer Stephen Bright, who represented Snyder. "I hope that, as a result of this decision, juries will be more representative of their communities." Read the whole thing here

This was an excellent way to end the Baha'i Year, particularly when you consider the well-documented racial/ethnic disparities in the functioning of our criminal justice system. Here's some data from Human Rights Watch (2002):

In twelve states, between 10 and 15 percent of adult black men are incarcerated.

· In ten states, between 5 and 10 percent of black adults are incarcerated.

· In twelve states, black men are incarcerated at rates between twelve and sixteen times greater than those of white men.

· In fifteen states, black women are incarcerated at rates between ten and thirty-five times greater than those of white women.

· In six states, black youth under age eighteen are incarcerated in adult facilities at rates between twelve and twenty-five times greater than those of white youth.

· In nine states, between 4 and nearly 8 percent of adult Latino men are incarcerated.

· In twelve states, between 2 and 4 percent of Hispanic adults (men and women) are incarcerated.

· In ten states, Latino men are incarcerated at rates between five and nine times greater than those of white men.

· In eight states, Latina women are incarcerated rates that are between four and seven times greater than those of white women.

· In four states, Hispanic youth under age eighteen are incarcerated in adult facilities at rates between seven and seventeen times greater than those of white youth.

More recently the United Nations addressed the issue of color in the criminal justice system.

It is encouraging to know that even within a deeply flawed and “lamentably defective” social order, the pursuit of justice can be victorious. This Supreme Court case is a reminder of the power of our justice system to right some of its wrongs when it works the way that it should.

"The world is in great turmoil, and the minds of its people are in a state of utter confusion. We entreat the Almighty that He may graciously illuminate them with the glory of His Justice, and enable them to discover that which will be profitable unto them at all times and under all conditions. He, verily is the All-Possessing, the Most High."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 97)