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Want to do the crime but not the time in Washington? Be white

Washington state's Monroe Correctional Complex Credit: Washington state Department of Corrections

A black person arrested in Washington is more than 6 times as likely to get prison time than a comparable white person charged with the same crime. A Latino arrested in Washington is 1.5 times more likely to get prison time than a similar white arrestee.

The reasons for those disparities are hard to pin down, with no clear-cut villains. Racial bias exists. But it is subconscious, subtle, showing up in tiny increments as an arrested person goes through the state’s criminal justice system.

That’s what a pair of Seattle University law school researchers told the Washington Senate’s Judiciary Committee in Olympia recently. Robert Chang, executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, and Robert Boruchowitz, director of the center’s The Defender Initiative, briefed the committee about the center’s preliminary report on “Race and the Criminal Justice System.”

The report was prompted by late 2010 remarks — reported by The Seattle Times — by Washington Supreme Court Justices Richard Sanders and James Johnson that blacks are over-represented in prisons because they commit a greater portion of crimes than white people. A coalition of about 30 universities and legal groups including the Washington Bar Association examined that claim, which resulted in the briefing during the legislative session that ended earlier this month. Sanders later lost a re-election bid for the Supreme Court.

“We found that the assertion attributed to then-Justice Sanders that African-Americans are overrepresented in the prison population because they commit a disproportionate number of crime is a gross oversimplication,” the report said.

Sen. Adam Kline, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the study could lead to the development of new legislation next year, but he expressed doubt about quick enactment.

The study found no definite link between race and the likelihood of a person of that color committing a crime. However, it found race appeared to be a significant factor in the greater likelihood of a non-white person going to prison or jail than a white person would for committing the same crime.

Washington’ imprisonment rate for African-Americans has been abnormally high for decades. A 1980 national study found that across the United States, black arrestees were four times more likely to to be imprisoned than arrested whites. That 1980 study found that Washington had the worst ratio in the nation with black arrestees being slightly more than nine times more likely to be imprisoned than arrested whites.

The study coalition crunched numbers from the criminal justice systems across the state, finding that in 2010:

  • An arrested black person had a 6.1 times greater chance of getting prison time than a similar white criminal. The King County ratio was 10.9 times as much. Pierce County’s ratio was six times as much. Other ratios included 8.4 in Thurston County, six in Kitsap County, 4.7 in Snohomish County, 62.2 in Clark County, and 83.9 in Yakima County.
  • While an arrested Latino had a 1.5 times greater chance of getting prison time than a similiar white arrestee statewide, the chance was twice a much as a white person in King County. Pierce County was 1.3 times as much. Other ratios included 1.1 in Thurston County, 1.6 in Kitsap County, 0.8 in Snohomish County, and 19.1 in Asotin County.
  • An arrested Native American had a 4.1 times greater chance of getting prison time than a similar white arrestee. That chance was 7.2 times as much in King County. Other ratios were 4.7 in Pierce County, 3.6 in Thurston County, 3.5 in Kitsap County, 2.7 in Snohomish County and 27.3 in Chelan County.
  • A black person in Washington was 3.6 times more likely than a similar white arrestee to be convicted of drug crime, 3.1 times more likely to be convicted of a property crime and 5.6 times more likely to be convicted of a violent crime. A Native American was 1.4 times more likely than a similar white arrestee of being convicted of a drug crime, 1.3 times more likely to be convicted of a property crime, and 2.1 times more likely to be convicted of a violent crime.

“Apparently we have a dark side and it’s our job to clean it up,” said committee chair Kline, a Seattle Democrat.

Chang, Burochowitz, and the report said no easily pinpointed reasons exist for these racial biases. Instead, the biases show up incrementally as an arrested person passed through the criminal justice system — each tiny subconscious increment building bit by bit through police enforcement, processing, pretrial activities, setting bail, defense attorney workloads, juries, judges and sentencings, they said..

The report cited a behavioral experiment in which “researchers found that when offered a choice of two rooms in which movies were playing, people avoided the room with a handicapped person, but only when doing so could masquerade as a movie preference. This experiment and others like it suggest that if reasons exist that provide plausible deniability that one is acting from bias, that people will in fact act on biases. The gap between true attitudes and what is expressed is exacerbated by the problem of unconscious or implicit bias.”

In outlining this type of barely acknowledged or unacknowledged bias, the report noted Jesse Jackson once saying that if he heard footsteps behind him at night in a city, he would be relieved to find out the footsteps came from a white person as opposed to an African-American.

The report said: “Nobody wants to be called a racist. Most people do not want to be racist. Yet many of us harbor explicit and implicit racial biases, regardless of our professed commitments to racial equality.”

“At the end of the day, where does the accountability lie?” Chang said. “The role that the legislature plays is an especially tricky one. … The role that leadership can play is to bring attention to the issue.”

The study coaltion recommends more education to judges, attorneys, and everyone else in the criminal justice system to make them aware of these subtle biases. Other recommendations include gathering better data on race and the criminal justice syatem, plus diverting people arrested for minor crimes – like drug possession — to non-incarceration treatment programs.

Kline said some legislation might be introduced because of this report, but the chances are slim in the upcoming 2012 session because of major pushes to solve a deep and complicated budget cirisis. A possible step to trim some cases — cutting public defense attorneys’ workload — would be to decriminalize some lesser types of offenses of driving with a suspended license, he said.

Chang and Burochowitz suggested that the legislature could mandate a racial impact study done on each bill reaching the Senate or House’s floor. Or if that idea falls through, individual legislative committees can ask for staff studies on racial impacts of some bills, they said.

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