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'We Seem Intent . . . on Putting Our Own Apartheid Into Place' : Justice System Accused of Anti-Black Bias

August 14, 1988|WILLIAM H. INMAN | United Press International

The Congaree River boils out of South Carolina's midlands and rolls through the heart of the state, separating affluent, white Lexington County from racially mixed Richland County, seat of the capital, Columbia.

The river might as well be a steel wall. Juries on either side of it tend to render strikingly different verdicts.

On the Lexington side, jurors are much tougher on defendants--often blacks--than jurors in Richland. Lexington jurors lopsidedly favor the prosecution in capital cases. Since 1977, all 10 of those accused of crimes punishable by execution have been sent to Death Row.

"There is a 100% certainty of conviction," said Ray Paternoster, a Maryland criminologist who has studied the region.

On the Richland side of the river, only about 10% to 20% of defendants in such cases are convicted.

The social map of America is divided too--not by a river, but by ribbons of razor wire and steel bars. The prison system has become a vast holding tank for young blacks. It is isolating them in ever greater numbers from the rest of society. They are the ones who are fueling the boom in imprisonment.

"We're seeing a division of our society into a white, affluent class and a poor, non-white underclass, many of them convicts and ex-convicts," said Jim Austin, research chief for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

"We seem intent, through massive imprisonment, on putting our own apartheid into place."

In Illinois and California, young blacks are swept into the penal system at eight times the rate among whites and three times that of Hispanics. According to the American Correctional Assn., adult black males now outnumber adult white males in U.S. prisons (216,000 to 196,000), although they represent only 12.1% of the overall population.

Blacks are dominating the prison population in New York (19,000 blacks, 7,000 whites), in Texas (15,000 and 13,000), in California (21,200 and 19,500), in Florida (15,000 and 14,000) and in Michigan (12,000 and 8,900). In the District of Columbia, the city with the most prisoners per capita, one of every nine blacks between ages 16 and 29 is behind bars.

There are far more black men in prisons and jails than there are on campuses, and, with demographic trends and aggressive drug-law enforcement, even more of black America is expected to wind up in the already crowded penal system.

Sociologists and criminologists disagree on the causes. Mounting poverty (relative to wealth), one-parent families, teen unemployment and slack education play important roles. On the streets of the inner cities, one fact is universally accepted: The potential for crime and for punishment has never been greater.

"There are three keys to understanding the phenomenon," said James Eaglin, a black attorney who chairs the National Assn. of Blacks in Criminal Justice. "They are environment, environment and environment.

"If you're uncertain where your next meal is coming from, uncertain if your mom is going to have enough money to pay back rent, there is a real strong incentive to move into the (criminal) process," said Eaglin, a researcher for the Federal Judicial Center, an arm of the federal courts. "Crime very clearly grows out of opportunity."

The opportunities are there because drugs are illegal. They are the deadly lure.

"Illicit drug-dealing is a key source of the criminal violence," said Elliott Currie, a University of California at Berkeley crime specialist. "It is the motivator."

Drugs have long been a fixture in minority communities, but society's retribution has moved into a new phase. Since the crime wave of the last decade, lawmakers, courts and prisons have tightened parole and sentencing rules and modified "good time" statutes to make it tougher for both dealers and users.

Enforcement of these laws is scouring the inner cities where the drug trade is the biggest steady employer of young black males.

"Drugs represent the principal economy in most large urban communities," Eaglin said. "They are part of an underground economy far more pervasive and far more insidious than anything that took place during the bootleg era of alcohol."

Indeed, blacks are being arrested at the highest rate ever, at twice the rate during Prohibition in the 1920s.

Black Males at Risk

In cities with 250,000 or more people, half of all black men will be jailed by age 55 for murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, arson or auto theft--offenses the FBI's Uniform Crime Report classifies as the most serious. Black suspects are arrested in 62% of all robberies and nearly half of all murders and rapes in the country, according to the agency. Population cohort studies in California found that one of every two black men will be arrested before he is 30 years old.

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