by Herbert Dyer, Jr.
A new report released by the U.S. Sentencing Commission has put some solid numbers to the long-held suspicion, belief, understanding, and now objective fact that African-American men are routinely given longer prison sentences than white men for the same crimes.
According to the report, black men found guilty between December 2007 and September 2011 received sentences that were at least19.5 percent longer than white men found guilty for similar crimes.
Assistant law professor Lahny Rose Silva of Indiana University’s School of Law says that most objective observers agree with the Commission’s finding, but that it is simply impossible to actually prove racial bias in sentencing on the part of the judges. “How do you prove racial bias without an individual coming out and blatantly saying ‘I‘m using race as a factor in sentencing?” Silva asks. “You just don‘t do it.”
Silva further stated that it is a simple historical fact that black men have largely received longer sentences than white men and that although the report may be useful for “research” purposes, it reveals nothing out of the ordinary for the goings-on in this nation-state’s “criminal justice” system's practices and procedures.
However, the report does indicate that the racial divide in sentencing has widened since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2005. It was then that the court struck down a 1984 law requiring judges to follow sentencing guidelines for each particular crime.
Thus, in only two short years, by 2007, sentences for black men, on average, clocked in at 15.2 percent longer than those for white men. The one saving grace here, Silva says, is that even though the sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, they are still generally used by most judges, especially federal judges.
According to Silva, the overall numbers, however, may not necessarily reflect racial bias on the part of judges. Rather, the disparity in sentencing can more likely be conflated with the much heavier policing in “urban” areas and/or the more frequent and therefore more likely -- prosecution of African-American men.
Professor Silva’s last point about “heavier” policing and prosecution, though, reveals the racist bent of the justice system even moreso than the sentencing numbers. What that means, and what she overlooks, is that black men are targeted by both police and prosecutors.
Some years ago, the Chicago Tribune broke a story that rocked the entire state. It seems not a small number of white Cook County prosecutors played a little game with each other that went like this: Each day, before black defendants were hauled before a judge, they were ordered to step onto a scale. At the end of the day, the prosecutors tallied up the numbers, and the one who had convicted the most number of blacks-by-the-pound won a free dinner at a fancy downtown hotel. They called the game "N****rs-By-The-Pound."
For thirty years as a paralegal, I often handled cases in Cook County’s (Chicago) criminal courts building. On any given day, the vast majority, upwards of ninety percent of criminal defendants being prosecuted there were (and remain) black or brown men, with a smattering of women (almost no white women), and a negligible number of “others.”
The sometimes block-long lines of “brothers” shackled hand and foot and to each other, shuffling through the building under the watchful eyes of “corrections officers,” looked like nothing other than those 19th century daguerreotype photographs of black slaves being led to the cotton, cane or tobacco fields – or, to the auction block.
And so, again, this “new” report from the government is really not new or “news” at all.