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Racism in the criminal justice system requires our attention

Accusing anyone of racism is a sure way to elicit a defensive response. Suggest that institutional racism is rampant, and most white Americans will react with the same reflexive denial, insisting they neither practice nor condone it.

But institutional racism isn’t an attitude, or a policy; it’s an outcome. To diminish it and ultimately eradicate it, we first have to measure it.

So we’re asking leaders in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to undertake an extraordinary effort: Gather the data necessary to document, and quantify, the racial inequities that infect each county’s criminal justice system, following the example of civic leaders in Washtenaw County.

The dedicated and methodical group of grassroots activists known as Citizens for Racial Equality in Washtenaw, or CREW, had no idea what they’d discover when they undertook to analyze 3,600 felony charges brought in Michigan’s sixth-largest county between 2013 and 2019. The racial disparities they documented in the prosecution and sentencing of criminal defendants astonished them, and their discoveries have challenged Washtenaw’s top law enforcement officials to reexamine the procedures, protocols and culture undergirding every facet of that county’s criminal justice system.

There is little reason to believe that Michigan’s three largest counties have avoided or overcome the inequities laid bare in Washtenaw. To the contrary, anecdotal evidence suggests that significant racial disparities may be even more pervasive in those jurisdictions. So Wayne, Oakland and Macomb must waste no time in replicating the work pioneered by CREW.

We do not underestimate the magnitude of the work we’re urging. It’s a massive undertaking.

But it’s also an opportunity to take stock of who we are, and what has been done in our names.

And to change it.

Attitudes and outcomes

The difference between racism and institutional racism is often misunderstood. Evidence of racial inequity can elicit that reflexive denial; white people deny, with sincerity, that they or the institutions they serve harbor any conscious racial animus.

But a racialized system — one that is stacked on race-based assumptions about intent, character and worth, about who deserves another chance and who requires stern punishment — requires no personal, active racial bias on the part of any actor (though such bias certainly exists) to deliver racially disparate outcomes. Bias is built into the system. It is the system.

Despite a sustained season of protest fueled by the stories of casual brutality, fatal indifference or misuse of authority captured on video for all to inspect, too many of us still believe that justice is blind, an impartial arbiter in a system that works.

Data tells a different story.

Over the last year, the citizens behind CREW — Alma Wheeler Smith, Linda Rexer, the Rev. Jerry Hatter, Dan Korobkin, Desiraé Simmons and the Rev. Joe Summers — quantified the racial inequities many community members suspected had infected the criminal justice system in their county, working with researchers to analyze capital and non-capital felonies in 11 case categories.

The end result, the CREW Report (Citizens for Racial Equity in Washtenaw) documented damning racial disparities that demand closer scrutiny: Compared with whites suspected of engaging in similar criminal acts, people of color were charged more often, faced a greater number of charges, were convicted more frequently and sentenced more harshly.

The CREW Report provides a baseline of data that informs what reforms must happen next.

That 22% more people of color were charged with some crimes should prompt any fair-minded Washtenaw resident to demand an accounting from the prosecutors responsible. But it defies understanding that in one category — the completely discretionary charge of using a firearm during the commission of an underlying felony, more than 12 times as many people of color were charged.

And yet this is how it works, in Washtenaw County, and in jurisdictions around the nation. Day after day, judges in the county’s courts saw a parade of Black and brown defendants wildly disproportionate to their representation in the county’s population, and never asked why.

The ask

It’s groundbreaking work, a foundation on which data-driven changes in criminal justice training and procedure can rise, and a model for all of Michigan’s counties.

But let’s start here.

We’re asking leaders in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to embrace this work, find community organizations and data analysts to partner with.

Smith, Ferguson and their colleagues say that CREW’s autonomy has been crucial to its mission. That’s why we’re encouraging elected officials to find credible community partners, then allow them the independence to do the work.

The CREW team worked with a highly regarded statistician experienced in criminal justice issues to develop methodology that can be adopted by any city or county. Members assured us that their doors are open to community members or elected officials who hope to duplicate the effort. We urge the counties that make up metro Detroit to adopt the CREW methodology; understanding county-level data is crucial, but so are common standards that allow counties to compare outcomes and replicate best practices.

— Detroit Free Press

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