Justice Perspective: Racism and criminal justice system

Wed, Mar 12th 2014 11:00 am
Deacon Don Weigel
Deacon Don Weigel

"The new forms of racism must be brought face to face with the figure of Christ" - U.S. Bishops, "Brothers and Sisters to Us."

There seems to have been so many commemorations of historical moments and movements lately. In the last six months, we have observed the 50th anniversaries of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, the issuance of the first document of Vatican II on the liturgy, "Sacrosanctum Concilium," and even the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

This July we'll undoubtedly commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act that outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities. Unfortunately, overt forms of discrimination may have been outlawed, but apparently racism is still alive and well.

In an alarming new report based on data from the New York state Criminal Justice Services, it appears that "representation of the African-American and Hispanic populations is disproportionately high in each stage of the criminal justice process." And, even worse, "the disparities grow at each stage of the process."

The report was prepared by Open Buffalo, a coalition of a number of civic organizations whose goals are long-term improvements in justice and equity in the Buffalo area. The report shows that in Erie County both African-Americans and Hispanics have higher percentages of arrests, have harsher sentences for convictions, and are less likely to receive probation or have their case dismissed than their white counterparts.

For example, African-Americans represent about half of those arrested for felonies, but are almost two-thirds of those sentenced to prison for felonies. By contrast, whites represent about 40 percent of those arrested for felonies, but only a little more than a quarter of those sentenced to prison. In other words, African-Americans convicted of felonies are sent to prison more often and for longer terms than whites who are convicted of felonies.

Similar patterns appear for misdemeanors, conviction rates, acquittals and probation. When people of color are at an obvious disadvantage throughout the judicial process, how can we deny that racism plays a part in that disadvantage? As the U.S. bishops taught in their document "Brothers and Sisters to Us," "Racism is apparent when we note that the population in our prisons consists disproportionately of minorities; that violent crime is the daily companion of a life of poverty and deprivation; and that the victims of such crimes are also disproportionately nonwhite and poor. Racism is also apparent in the attitudes and behavior of some law enforcement officials and in the unequal availability of legal assistance."

Long ago racism was regularly practiced openly against whatever minority was the object of public scorn at the moment: Irish, Poles, Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, and others. Now racism is less blatant, and more subtle, and, in some respects, even more dangerous because it is even harder to combat and easier to ignore.
Racism still exists hidden in the structures of society that are tilted toward the success of the majority and the failure of the minority. Apparently, the criminal justice system is one example of just such a structure.

The bishops tell us that this radical evil calls for an equally radical transformation, in our own minds and hearts, as well as in the structure of our society. We must be willing to correct our own attitudes, and insist on a correction in the judicial system. But, they remind us, "There must be no turning back along the road of justice."

Deacon Don Weigel is the associate public policy coordinator at Catholic Charities of Western New York and an instructor at Christ the King Seminary. He may be reached via email.


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