George Zimmerman’s killing of 17-year old, unarmed Trayvon Martin – and the resulting verdict in Zimmerman’s trial – has sparked outrage from people all over the country and once again drawn Americans’ attention to the racial and ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system.
The challenge for the civil and human rights community is to find a way to capture and channel all that frustration into a new, strategic movement to reform a racially and ethnically discriminatory criminal justice system that is long overdue for a radical restructuring into something more humane and just.
The ongoing and pervasive disparate and unequal treatment of racial and ethnic minorities that exists throughout the criminal justice system is a moral injustice that has a devastating impact on millions of people. The United States currently imprisons more people than any other nation in the world, most of whom are Black, Brown, low-income and undereducated. More than 60 percent of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities and 1 out of every 10 Black men in their 30s is in prison or jail on any given day, according to the Sentencing Project.
These numbers are staggering. But they only scratch the surface of the problem. Throughout every stage of the system – from arrest and prosecution to sentencing and incarceration, even those among state death row populations – Black, Brown and low-income people are disproportionately represented. And as Michelle Alexander says in her seminal 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it”
So, it makes some sense that it has been difficult in the month since the Zimmerman verdict to know where to start to dismantle and realign the system. Some, like Color of Change, have focused their attention on repealing the “Stand Your Ground” laws that played a part in the Martin-Zimmerman tragedy. Others continue to fight racial profiling in the form of “stop-and-frisk” policies in New York City. And others like the NAACP are proactively providing model legislation, “Trayvon’s Law,” named after Trayvon that will eliminate racial profiling, create civilian complaint review boards to review complaints of police misconduct and abuse of power, provide best practices for community watch groups, and require law enforcement to collect disaggregated data on homicide cases, and also repeal “Stand Your Ground” laws.
All of these are worthy efforts and should be supported by all Americans who care about justice and equal treatment under the law. But there are other developments at the federal level that are not as high-profile, yet are worth considering as well.
The U.S. Senate recently introduced two bills, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 and the Justice Safety Valve Act, that would give judges more flexibility to impose sentences below the mandatory minimum requirement. It is long past time that we eliminated our justice system’s overreliance on mandatory minimum sentencing and stopped imprisoning low-level, nonviolent offenders for exorbitantly long periods of time. Judges should have more discretion to determine sentences that fit the nature of the crime and take into account relevant factors.
The Leadership Conference is also advocating for the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act – reintroduced in both houses of Congress this year – which would ban the use of racial profiling by law enforcement, require law enforcement to collect data on investigatory activities, and mandate training for law enforcement on racial profiling issues. The bill has been introduced in nearly every Congress since 2001, has received broad support, and is long past due to be passed by Congress and enacted into law.
President Obama in his impromptu speech about the Zimmerman verdict last month said that the federal government should be providing guidance to local law enforcement agencies on how to handle issues of race and ethnicity. One way the federal government can follow through on this suggestion is for the U.S. Department of Justice to update its 2003 guidance on the use of race to fix loopholes that limit its effectiveness at preventing racial profiling.
There are many fronts to this fight. These are just a few. But as Sybrina Fulton said at the National Urban League conference last month, the great tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s killing must be our galvanizing event to inspire us to fix our criminal justice system. We owe it to Trayvon and all the millions of Black, Brown, low-income and under-educated men and women, boys and girls, caught up in this system that has been unjust for far too long.
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