September 28, 2008 in City

Minorities overrepresented among felony convictions

Thomas Clouse Staff writer
 

On the Web: Find stories and photography from the first installment of this two-part series at spokesmanreview.com

With the presidential election sparking a renewed discussion of race, local officials struggle to explain why minorities in Spokane County face higher conviction rates than white residents.

Statistics show that in Spokane County this year, black residents are eight times more likely to be convicted of a felony than a member of the 92-percent white majority.

Ask for a cause of that racial disparity and law enforcement officials use the same line: We arrest those who commit the crimes.

Ask advocates seeking to change that disparity, and they say the conviction numbers cannot be explained simply by saying that one group is more prone to commit crime.

Lisa Daugaard is deputy director of the Defender Association in King County. She also supervises the Racial Disparity Project, which since 2001 has tried to address what she called the systemic racial bias of the criminal justice system at the local level.

“We have the capacity to design the justice system to stop replicating this disastrous outcome,” Daugaard said. “I believe it requires voices on both sides to stop disputing whether or not it’s factually established that there is a disparity. It may not be consciously racist. But it is racist in effect.”

The numbers are hard to ignore. So far this year, Spokane County has sent 584 convicted felons to state prison, according to the state Department of Corrections. While black people only make up about 2 percent of the county’s population, they represent 16 percent of those convicted this year.

Native Americans make up less than 2 percent of Spokane County’s population, according to U.S. Census data, but they represent 7 percent of those sent to prison, according to statistics from the state Department of Corrections.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he was unaware of the disparity. He said he’s also unaware of any practice or policy by his organization that would lead to higher numbers of minority convictions.

“We go after the people who are committing the crimes,” he said. “It’s not a group. It’s those who are committing the crimes.”

Asked if he believes members of minorities are committing more crime, Knezovich said he didn’t know if he could say that definitively.

“It’s not just a race issue. It’s an economic issue,” he said. “If we want to have an impact in this area, we have to reach out to those in our highest risk groups. If you are poor, you are more exposed to the risk of entering into some criminal behavior.”

But the disparity, said Larry Weiser, an associate professor at Gonzaga University School of Law, goes much deeper than socio-economic issues.

Weiser, who works with Gonzaga’s University Legal Assistance, is one of the attorneys arguing Farrakhan vs. Gregoire before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, joined by attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund in New York. The suit seeks to overturn the law making it illegal for felons to vote in Washington.

The crux of the argument is that because of the racial disparity in Washington’s criminal justice system, the state law barring felons from voting violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act, which prohibits any standard, practice or procedure that results in the denial or abridgement of any citizen to vote on account of race or color.

Because of felony convictions, one in four black men in the state can’t vote. And collectively, blacks, Latinos and Native Americans represent 12 percent of the state population, yet they represent 36 percent of the state’s prison population, according to the lawsuit.

“Something is happening in the system that makes that happen. It cannot be explained by race alone,” Weiser said.

As for the assertion that the problem’s roots are socio-economic, Weiser pointed out that Spokane is home to many more poor white people than poor black people. “So it doesn’t compute,” he said.

“Every part of the criminal justice system has to look at itself and determine what part they play in it,” Weiser said.

Jack Driscoll, Spokane County’s chief criminal deputy prosecutor, said he doesn’t know why black people are proportionately convicted at a higher rate.

“Just looking at the raw numbers, it shows there is an issue there,” Driscoll said. “But what the cause is, I can’t answer that.”

He added: “Our job is to look at a report and decide solely on the facts, regardless of the race. That should take care of any of those issues.”

Daugaard said most of the problems in Seattle don’t come from judges handing down unfair sentences or prosecutors filing excessive charges – they come from the way police investigate drug crimes.

“Drug enforcement is a perfect area to take this on. It is the No. 1 driver of racial disparity,” she said.

She gave the example of an undercover operation in 2001 that netted 40 mostly white suspects at a rave party. City officials complained, saying police could be doing something more constructive than arresting college students at a party, she said.

“There’s never an outcry when those arrests are being made in Pioneer Square and the suspects are homeless or black,” Daugaard said. “But there was a huge outcry when one of the suspects was a pre-med student at UW and (the crowd was) overwhelmingly white.”

The solution isn’t to arrest more white people or to ask police to stop investigating drug crimes, she said.

Instead, Racial Disparity Project leaders would like to see greater use of diversion programs, which avoid the cost of incarceration and help offenders address drug problems. “It’s impossible to discuss this topic with people in the criminal justice system without them feeling intentionally racist,” Daugaard said. “The question is whether anybody is willing to do anything differently.”


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