by Carl C. Holmes
Great debate has taken place in the past few years
about the decrease in crime statistics. Some say that crime is down because of "three
strike" laws and greatly enhanced prison terms. Others say that crime is down because
of a simple change in demographics. Whatever the argument, hard evidence suggests our
society is solving its "crime problem" by locking up poor people in alarming
It has been said that a civilized society is best
measured by how it treats the poor. If such is the case, we Americans are abject failures.
Nationwide over 20% of our children live in poverty. In Los Angeles 30% of all children
For these impoverished children, death is 1.5 to 3 times
more likely than for their affluent counterparts. They are 2.7 times more likely to suffer
stunted growth, and twice as likely to suffer serious physical or mental disabilities. For
ages 3 and older, poor children are likely to score between 11-25 percentiles lower on
achievement tests. If thats not enough, the level of illiteracy among our poor is a
What produces these horrible effects of poverty? Is it
lack of family bonds? Low IQs, lack of appropriate parenting? According to the Children
Defense Fund, which has collected and studied this data for over a decade: "Recent
academic studies demonstrate that the effects of poverty cannot be explained away as mere
side effects of single parenthood, race, parents low IQs or lack of education."
To the contrary, poverty itself spawns this waste and desolation.
If poverty were a disease it would be the most insidious,
devastating, and life threatening disease that Americans suffer. The poor suffer not just
economically, but they also suffer lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of health
care, and significantly more violence than others better situated in the community. They
suffer higher disease rates, death rates and imprisonment than their affluent brethren.
They are imprisoned at much higher rates and they are executed for capital crimes more
often than any other group. In fact, they are almost the exclusive recipients of the death
And though white Americans constitute the majority of the
impoverished population, minorities are likely to be over represented in this population.
Though it is true that minority status in this country will not necessarily make you poor,
if there were a formula for a "poor quotient," minority status would be the
heaviest contributor. Historically, this has been true for almost every minority in
America and includes African Americans, Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish
Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans.
Unfortunately, Census data strongly supports the idea
that racial and ethnic status are connected with poverty. According to U.S. Census figures
20.5 percent of all children under age 18 were poor
11.1 percent of White children were poor
39.9 percent of Black children were poor
40.3 percent of Hispanic children were poor and
19.5 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander children were poor
If poor people are more likely to commit crime, and if
minorities are more likely to be poor, are they also more likely to commit crime?
Deductive reasoning would say so. Data produced by prosecutors tends to confirm this
notion. This is another of the cruel and devastating effects of poverty.
In Washington D.C. and Los Angeles more than 30% of young
black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole for the commission of crime. The vast
majority of these young men are poor. African American and Hispanic communities have
understandably become alarmed. Concerned community leaders complain that entire
generations of young minority men are being put at risk by incarceration.
There is good reason to fear that minority men are
severely at risk in the criminal justice system. 71% of all "3 strike" offenders
in California prisons are African Americans or Latino Americans. What is worse, these men
are all serving 25 to life sentences. Unbelievably, many of these men are serving these
life sentences for petty theft and minor drug offenses. Offenses such as these are common
among the poor. So common in fact that minority people suffer imprisonment wildly
disproportional to their numbers in the general population.
For example, while previous studies have shown that
African Americans and white Americans use drugs at about the same rate, African Americans
are charged at nearly five times the rate of whites, and in "3 strikes" cases at
17 times the rates of whites in Los Angeles.
Alex Schiraldi, Director of the Center for Juvenile and
Criminal Justice made this astute and somewhat caustic observation about the
disproportionate prosecution of African Americans and other minorities for drug use:
"If you sent the police into white neighborhoods
with the same concentration, you would draw a much different conclusion".."I am
not accusing judges or District Attorneys of being Ku Klux Klan members
I am talking
about a subtler form of institutional racism. And the difference to me is that if four in
10 young white men were under the control of the criminal justice system, we could not be
passing "three strikes" laws or building more prisons, we would be funding
education, jobs and drug treatment."
Minorities are treated differently in the courts. They
are viewed with suspicion, they are held in custody longer, they are presumed guilty,
their defense is poorly funded compared to the prosecution, and they are often treated
abusively by the people who are charged with enforcing our laws.
In August and September of 1993 a survey was conducted by
a private consulting firm which had been commissioned by the California Judicial
Councils Advisory Committee on Racial and ethnic bias in the Courts
committee appointed by Chief Justice Malcom Lucas. Here are some of the findings:
In a survey of 1,338 members of the public on a scale of
1-10 for "fairness," the public rated the California courts at 5.3. In the same
survey Blacks gave the courts a 4.0 rating for fairness. Strong majorities of Blacks,
Indians, and Hispanics, felt that a minority defendant will be treated more harshly than a
white defendant for a crime against a white victim.
But of 828 judges, lawyers and court employees, lawyers
gave the courts only a 3.5 rating in fairness to minorities. More than 4/5ths of the
judges in the same survey were white and they gave themselves a 7.7 rating on fairness.
In this same survey, lawyers were more than twice as
likely as judges to agree with statements that minority lawyers are often treated as
second-class professionals by judges; that judges tend to favor the prosecutor over the
public defender in cases involving minority defendants, and that judges and prosecutors
are members of an "old boy" network that excludes minorities.
Even though we are the most affluent country in the
world, we continue to commit a greater proportion of our citizens to prison than any other
civilized country. The vast majority of these people are poor.
In the past several decades we have increased punishment
for hundreds of crimes. We increased punishments for drug use, theft, burglary, robbery,
rape, and car jacking. You name the behavior. We increased the punishment.
We enacted new laws; 3 strike laws, one-strike laws, and
career criminal laws. For good measure, we increased the number of crimes allowing life
sentences and death penalties. We became punishment delirious. We doubled the number of
people in prison but did very little to stop serious crime. And who are the people going
to jail for these newly enhanced crimes? You have seen the data. Poor people are going to
If crime is on the decrease, someone neglected to talk to
the caretakers of our prison system. Prison population in California is about 160,000 and
is over twice the prison population in 1987. Most of these inmates are poor minorities and
So, even though it is very clear that our criminal
justice system is broken, and many within the system have lost confidence in it, we keep
chasing the same solutions. More punishment for longer terms seems to be our only
response. Why do we persist in addressing the symptoms rather than the causes? I believe
because we have sufficiently isolated the poor who are not like "us", and
sufficiently demeaned them, that we have become indifferent to their plight. It is a
matter of insensitivity and arrogance. It is our arrogance. We are more concerned about
our status, our houses, our cars and our vacations than we are about taking care of each
Our unwillingness or inability to educate ourselves about
poverty and do something about it is astounding. Our failure in this regard, may
ultimately be very destructive to our democracy. There is already a perception in this
country that giving up a few Constitutional rights is a fair exchange for personal safety.
There are other less drastic solutions however; solutions
which do not exact increasingly severe jail sentences, solutions that do not further
isolate poor minorities, but solutions which reach the causes of poverty and crime.
60s icon, Angela Davis, noting the alarming rates
of imprisonment of young black men, and the need for new solutions said this; "Prison
should not be the catch all solution to all of the social problems that we have from
mental illness to homelessness, to lack of health care, to the lack of
education....Were saying we need different kinds of institutions. We need drug
programs that are accessible from the street and that are free. We need better
schools. We need schools that dont look and function like prisons."
Ms. Davis is on the right track. We know drug courts
work. In countless communities across the country, drug users are being rehabilitated. We
know feeding pre-school children works. We know that education and health care make a
So, before we destroy ourselves in our quest for personal
safety and protection from street violence, we should reflect on this observation by
" There is another kind of violence, slower but
just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of
institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts
the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skins have different colors.
This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes
without heat in the winter."
We as lawyers need to challenge indifference, the poison
of racism, and the devastation of poverty. We have a unique opportunity to refocus our
society on these issues. We need to insist on meaningful dialogue on the important issues
relating to poverty and its effects. We need to challenge prosecutors, judges and
legislators to find new solutions. We need to challenge ourselves.
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