institutional racism in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating

Rodney King, whose brutal beating by Los Angeles police in 1991 ignited protests and riots, was found dead Sunday in his swimming pool from apparent drowning at the age of 47. King’s beating symbolized an infringement upon civil rights; specifically it was an example of racially motivated police misconduct and brutality. The recording of the tragic incident on camera exposed an ugly departure from the principle of “equal justice under the law,” a tenet proudly inscribed on the U.S. Supreme Court building, and espoused by our nation’s forefathers. The Rodney King beating, while unfortunate and tragic, opened the doors to a more profound understanding of inequality in our justice system.

King had been drinking and speeding over 100mph, and refused to pull over after hearing wailing police sirens. On parole for a robbery conviction, King feared that if he pulled over, he would be arrested for violating his parole. Fifteen officers, all of whom were white, converged upon King in patrol cars. Three of the officers approached King and tazed him with a stun gun, kicked him, and ferociously hit him more than 50 times with wooden batons.

The officers initially were criminally charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force, only to be acquitted later. This verdict bred anger and rage, particularly among minority groups, some whom felt that this was a confirmation that the judicial system was riddled with racial inequality. Ultimately, the officers were retried for federal charges of civil rights violations and two of them were found guilty.

Justice was eventually served, but only after rigorous pressure from civil rights groups and activists, minority groups, and others.

Were it not for the video age, which made it possible for a bystander to record the Rodney King beating, investigations illuminating the role of prejudice in the justice system may never have been conducted. Although we have made strides towards accountability in our justice system, there still remains institutional racism.

War on Drugs’ Impact on Minority Imprisonment

The War on Drugs began in 1979 and continues today to the detriment of African Americans. Aside from the fact that its success in combating drugs remains questionable, sentencing is much harsher for possession of those illicit drugs most commonly used by African Americans.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, since 1970, drug arrests have increased from 320,000 to approximately 1.6 million. Drug offenses, furthermore, account for over half (51%) of the federal prison population, which is a 20-fold increase since 1980.

African Americans account for more than 80% of those convicted of federal crack offenses, because they are generally in the lower socio-economic strata, and crack cocaine is much cheaper than powdered cocaine. A first offense of 28 grams of crack cocaine possession carries a mandatory minimum 5-year sentence, while it takes 500 grams of powdered cocaine (which is used more frequently among Caucasians and is also more expensive) to receive the same sentence. Crack and powdered cocaine are pharmacologically the same, and extensive research by the United States Sentencing Commission has confirmed that the differences between the substances have been exaggerated to such a degree that does not justify vast discrepancy in sentencing.

African Americans are also more prone to be arrested for Marijuana possession, although they are less likely to use the substance than Caucasians. Marijuana remains illegal in many states and is classified as a schedule I drug, a classification assigned to drugs that have a high potential for abuse.

From 2004 through 2008, African Americans were arrested for marijuana possession at double, or sometimes even triple the rate that whites were arrested in 25 of the largest counties in California. A report by the Drug Policy Alliance concluded that this occurred because of patrolling practices by the police, in which police systematically “fish” for arrests in low income neighborhoods where African Americans and Latinos primarily reside. They disproportionately search vehicles and people in these areas, with the goal of finding contraband to make an arrest.

In New York City, around 50,000 people annually are arrested for marijuana possession, with African Americans comprising approximately 50% of the arrests, and Caucasians approximately 15% of arrests. This, in spite of the fact, that African Americans are less likely to use marijuana than Caucasians.

While the sheer numbers of arrests for possession and the large proportion of minorities affected are alarming, the methods used in obtaining these arrests, specifically in New York City, are even more alarming. The “Stop and Frisk” law in New York City allows officers to stop and frisk individuals that look “suspicious”. Their “suspicion” may have possibly been motivated by prejudice, since the tactic was used to stop nearly 700,000 men last year, most of whom were African American and Hispanics, yet only 10% were found guilty of a crime. New Yorkers, fearing that the policy enables racial profiling, orchestrated a protest this past Sunday against the “Stop and Frisk” law.

All of this may explain the conundrum that five times as many Caucasians are using illicit drugs, yet African Americans are sent to prison at 10 times the rate of Caucasians. The tragedy is that conviction and/or imprisonment for these illegal drugs lead to a criminal record, thereby only exacerbating the problem of unemployment in the African American community.

Public Defenders Not Able to Provide Effective Legal Representation

Eddie Joe Lloyd served 17 years in Michigan prison for a murder and rape he didn’t commit. DNA evidence later exonerated him and led to his release in 2002.

Public defenders work on the behalf of indigent defendants, whom are otherwise incapable of affording an attorney. Approximately 25% of African Americans and Hispanics are living in poverty, which explains why they are the greatest recipients of the public defense system. In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 77% of African Americans are forced to use the public defense system, making them the largest demographic dependent on this system.

Public Defenders are shouldering heavy workloads. According to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), many public defenders have felony caseloads of 500 or more, whereas the nationally recommended standard, as prescribed the National Advisory Commission (NAC), limits attorneys to 150 felony cases per year. Moreover, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that in 2007, 15 of the 19 reporting state public defender systems exceeded NAC’s recommended standards for caseloads by 27, handling approximately a median of 300 cases.

As a result, many public defenders are overworked, which hinders their ability to provide effective representation. A shortage of time to sufficiently research, plan and prepare cases for their clients has been attributed as a reason for why indigent defendants are significantly more likely to enter into plea bargains than those whom hire private attorneys. The need to turn over cases rapidly due to time constraints and to avoid trial against the behemoth State power is one that is troubling. Public defenders may be encouraging a hurried guilty plea by a defendant who is otherwise innocent, but simply concedes out of fear and confusion stemming from the complex legal system.

Underfunding of public defender programs is also a serious concern. The government has been generous in funding the upkeep and creation of new prison facilities, but has neglected to be nearly as generous in their funding of public defenders, the very people that can stand in the way of a guilty verdict that sends people to these prison facilities. The lack of funding seriously impedes the ability of public defenders to tap into tools such as training, investigators, and experts, which could make or break a case.

The State of Michigan, which ranks 44th nationally in per capita spending for lawyers for indigent criminal defendants, is a poster child for the broken public defender system. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Michigan’s Campaign for Justice attributed underfunding of the public defender system to the refusal by judges to spend money for investigators and other experts, and to the improper training received by public defenders. They emphasized that wrongful imprisonment is a serious repercussion of underfunding of the public defender system, specifically referring to the case of Eddie Joe Lloyd (an African American) who spent 17 years in prison for murder he didn’t commit.

“Our tax dollars are being spent to send the wrong people to prison,” said ACLU lawyer Robin Dahlberg in reference to the broken public defender system.

These groups believe that perhaps thousands of innocent people have been wrongfully imprisoned due to lack of adequate funding for training, research, experts, and investigators. Of course, this means that African Americans and Hispanics disproportionately fall victim to an underfunded public defender system, thereby offending due process.

In an adversarial process, defense attorneys must have adequate time, training, and tools to conduct their jobs. When there is a mismatch, and the prosecution has much greater resources and funding, this has the potential of undermining fairness and impartiality, both of which are central to our justice system.

Institutional racism is alive and well. Our pernicious drug laws coupled with a broken indigent defense system are leading to criminal injustice against minorities. Reform is needed in the arenas of sentencing laws, police racial profiling, and funding for indigent defense programs. Accountability isn’t limited to the average citizen; it extends to those whom we entrust to keep order and administer justice.

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