Double Standards: Race and our Judicial System
Robert Long, the man responsible for the killing spree that resulted in the death of eight civilians, six of them being Asian-American women, was depicted by the sheriff’s spokesman, Captain Jay Baker, in the aftermath as just having “a really bad day.” More precisely, Baker said, “He was pretty much fed up and kind of at the end of his rope. Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” Interestingly, the sheriff’s spokesperson seemed rather unbothered by the tragic events that had taken place the day before, and continued to push the narrative that the crime committed was not one of hate, but one attributed to Long’s sex addiction.
This begs a few question that are on the minds of many:
If Long had not been White, would law enforcement have made the same statement and would they have dealt with him as civilly as they did? Or, would he even be alive?
Well, it's pretty clear based on the differences in reactions and the race of the accused, that we see time and time again in the media. Oftentimes, when the accused is Muslim, the act of terrorism is questioned. When Latinos commit crimes, there is banter over illegal immigration and the need to “build a wall.” When Blacks commit crimes, there are harmful stereotypes attributed to them, and many are seen as “thugs” or violent beings that need to be managed. And unfortunately, it’s not just the media who pushes this narrative. These same notions, ideologies, and injustices have been woven into the fabric of our judicial policies and system. They have resulted in inequitable policies, laws and double standards in their application.
A prime example of this blatant inequity is the incarceration rates and length of sentences for crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine. What distinguishes the two substances is the cheaper and easier accessibility of crack cocaine that attracts lower income citizens and is mostly used by Black and Brown people. Powder cocaine is more expensive and is frequently used by Whites. Interestingly, both have the same chemical structure and effect on users. However, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 ruled the distribution of 5 grams of crack cocaine carried a minimum sentence of 5 years, while the distribution of 500 grams of cocaine, literally 100 times the amount of crack, carried the same sentence. This was commonly referred to as the 100:1 law, illustrating the absurd disparity between the two drug charges. The 1977 Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act further spread the divide between crack and powder cocaine users when Congress ruled a 20-year maximum prison sentence for crack sellers while the maximum for powder cocaine remained at only one year.
Since then, there have been some judicial improvements made, like the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which changed the 100:1 ratio to 18:1. However, there remains so much more work to be done in balancing the scales of equity and justice, and with law enforcement and our judicial system. In fact, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law, or the EQUAL act, has been the most recent attempt to push out a bill to achieve the original goal of the Fair Sentencing Act: to eliminate the drug charge disparity once and for all. If passed, the bill will finally end the racist imbalance started from the Anti-Drug Abuse Act almost 40 years prior. Especially in light of the recent racial awakening throughout the country, the chances of seeing this bill passed, as Kevin Ring calls it, should be a “no brainer”.
And it’s not just race where these disparities exist-it includes gender identities as well.
Comparatively, women often receive shorter or significantly more lenient prison sentences, especially for sex-crimes, than their male counterparts. This may be attributed to less gravity being given to sex-crimes against men than those perpetrated against women. Statistically, sentences for men can actually be up to 63% longer than for women who commit the same crime, and race still plays a contributing factor along with one’s gender. Thus, Black and Brown males likely receive more incarceration time than Black and Brown females.
What we know is that despite all the spotlighting done on this issue, double standards still exist in today’s justice system and people of color continue to be disproportionately incarcerated. Until there is parity in criminal offense prosecution and sentencing, the scales of Lady Justice will remain imbalanced.
So, what can each of us do about these racial disparities and inequitable incarcerations?
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