by Deon Jones
This week, the Obama Administration, advocacy organizations, state and local governments, and citizens across the United States are celebrating Black Male Achievement Week. This is a time when stakeholders bring to the forefront the plight of African-American males in the U.S. and devise action plans to solve them. There are many economic, educational, and social injustices that still plague the African-American community today, and here at the Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI), we believe in the iconic words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King wrote these words while incarcerated, pretrial, in a Birmingham, Alabama jail in 1963. Since 2007, PJI has advocated diligently to promote fair, safe, and effective pretrial services in jurisdictions all across the country, particularly moving from a system based on monetary status to one that is based on individual risk , an injustice that drastically affects non-violent, poor African-American males across the country.
According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “more African American adults are under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850.” There are close to 12 million arrests each year in the United States, and less than 5 percent of those arrests are for violent crimes. Therefore, most incarcerated individuals, who pose no threat to society and no risk of skipping trial, are stuck in a cell because they cannot afford bail. Research already shows us the extreme racial disparities that exist among national arrest rates so it follows that there are many African-American males sitting behind bars just because they are poor.
A new journal article, “‘Give us Free’: Addressing Racial Disparities in Bail Determinations” written by American University law professor and PJI Board member Cynthia Jones points to research showing that African Americans who are accused of crimes will be given more extreme bail rulings than White Americans accused of the same or similar crimes. This harsh punishment is most likely in the form a large amount of money that they cannot pay. In some cases, African Americans have a higher chance of not being released on bond and are forced to stay locked up until trial. For many African Americans, this injustice is the result of little oversight of bail officials who have almost full discretion when it comes to setting bail. Instead of using an individualized risk-assessment tool, in most cases, it comes down to income and race.
For African Americans, particularly males, being incarcerated for long periods of time on non-violent charges, such as outstanding warrants, petty thefts, and others, can be detrimental in a society where incarceration has harsh side effects. The unemployment rate for African-American men is 11.9 percent, the highest of all racial groups. When people are incarcerated for long periods of time, most will lose their job. Therefore, there is no income, and if they have families, household income also decreases forcing families closer to the poverty line and to rely more heavily on public assistance. In addition, families are broken with the loss of a loved one to the criminal justice system.
For young African-American male teens in the adult system, the effects are even worse. NYC teen Kalief Browder was a high school sophomore walking home from a party when he was arrested on a tip that he robbed someone. He was sent to the notorious Rikers Island. He was held because he couldn’t afford the $10,000 bail. Although he went to court many times, he never had a trial. After 3 years in jail, a judge offered to release him in exchange for a guilty plea. Kalief did not take the deal. He was ultimately released, after 33 months, with no explanation. Not only is it a tragedy what happened to him and the injustice in the court process, but it is a tragedy on whatKalief missed out on – receiving an education, graduating with his peers, going to prom, and other enjoyments of a high school teenager.
The injustice of determining if a person can go home free after being arrested is ruining the lives of many people and is resulting in over-incarceration, jail crowding, and taxpayer dollars being spent by the billions. The answer of if a defendant can go home seems to have come down to two things: income and race. As we celebrate Black Male Achievement Week, we should urge jurisdictions to use data-driven risk assessment tools to assess if a person should be released from pretrial detention or not, instead of just setting arbitrary bail amounts. Too many African-American men are stuck in jail who do not threaten public safety and will show up for trial. As our country continues to evolve, we must continue to fight against barriers that have blocked African-American male achievement for too long so all, even the poorest, can reach their full potential.
Deon Jones is a National Spokesperson at the Campaign for Youth Justice and a Fellow at the Pretrial Justice Institute.