Panel on Problems in US Justice system

By Marianne Novy

On November 13, an evening panel at the Church of the Redeemer in Squirrel Hill analyzed some of the current problems with the American justice system before an attentive audience of over 100 people.

Dean Larry Davis of the Pitt School of Social Work, Director of the Center for Race and Social Problems, chaired the panel and began with the statistics that the US now incarcerates 716 people for every hundred thousand, with a rate more than five times as high as any other country. He also noted that prosecutors are now encouraged to seek maximum sentences.

Professor Alfred Blumstein, of the Heinz College of Public Policy at CMU, explained the relation between the history of drug laws and the growing racial disproportionality of those incarcerated. African-Americans are now 12.6% of the population and 40% of those incarcerated, and 25% of all serving life sentences in US prisons are there because of drug-related offenses. The push for mandatory minimum sentences for drug buying began in the mid-seventies; the desire of families of the addicted for toughness was used for political benefit.

Mandatory minimums didn’t help reduce drug use because the market continued. However, in early 1986 a five-year mandatory minimum was established for buying 500 grams of cocaine or 5 grams of crack, a version of cocaine more often used by some African-Americans. This drastically increased the racial disparity of those in prison. Under Attorney General Holder’s Justice Department, in the Obama administration , many states began to move away from mandatory minimums, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has tried to stop this. However, the PA Supreme Court has declared mandatory minimums unconstitutional.

Professor David Harris of the Pitt Law School set out several differences between Holder’s policies and Sessions’. First, Trump, by contrast to Obama, appointed his Attorney General to defend him. Second, Sessions has overseen a move away from evidence-based practice; for example, he maintains mandatory minimums although there is no evidence that they work. He ended the Science Task Force and cut federal funding for research on police practices. The report on Ferguson police shows that they needed a consent decree, but Sessions ignored this. Sessions’ Justice Department is all about removing restrictions on police practice.

Third, in spite of this preference, Sessions’ department doesn’t listen to what police say about policies. Sessions wants police to enforce immigration law, but police know that they shouldn’t try to do this because immigrants will then be afraid to cooperate with the police on other issues. Furthermore, contrary to Sessions’ claims, undocumented immigrants are not driving violence. Fourth, Sessions’ department does not use tools of police reform, such as consent decrees, to help end unfair behavior, which inflicts injustice more heavily on people of color. Holder’s Justice Department investigated unconstitutional police behavior in over 20 cities, the first of them being Pittsburgh. Sessions isn’t doing this. He also ended the voluntary audits of police department behavior that had been done by the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services.

Substituting for Celeste Taylor, who was ill, Tim Stevens, founder and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project (B-PEP), gave history and discussed current issues in Pittsburgh and the 21st Summit on Racism, upcoming on January 20, 2018. After the beating of Jordan Miles, B-PEP went with CAPA students to the City Council and produced legislation and the booklet “You and the Police,” recently updated. He pointed out that Trump is appointing federal judges who are younger and younger and may serve for 40 years. He advocated for the removal of questions about previous incarceration on job applications (“ban the box”) and for the extension of the Rooney rule (black candidates for coach had to be among those interviewed) to other jobs, noting in particular the low representation of blacks in construction jobs.

In the question period, members of the panel touched on many topics. Harris said that an appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the League of Women Voters, and B-PEP stopped the demand for ID for voting. B-PEP is hoping to get a law passed so that the local district attorney isn’t the one ruling on a death caused by a police officer.

Harris said that Police Chief Schubert is continuing the training in procedural justice and implicit bias developed by the National Institute for Building Community Trust and Justice (NIBCTJ) and begun by former Chief McLay; some of this training is also being given to the public. However, the third goal of the NIBCTJ, racial reconciliation, is lagging behind what has been done in other cities. In response to a question about juvenile offenders, Harris referred to research from the Urban Institute, arguing that there should not be life sentences without parole for crimes committed by a juvenile. PA was the top state in imposing these sentences. He said that many others in prison were also juveniles in their brain development when they were sentenced and should have their sentences reduced because of this ruling.

This event was the fourth in Redeemer’s Great Issues Forums, all so far dealing with race in Pittsburgh. The fifth will be a panel on intersections of race and LGBTQ issues in our community, to be held at Redeemer at 7 pm on March 15, 2018.

Marianne Novy is recently retired as a professor of English. She is a member of Church of the Redeemer and chairs the Social Justice and Outreach Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

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