This year marked the 50th anniversary of both the March on Washington and another civil rights landmark — the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right to an attorney for those who cannot afford one.
“It’s appropriate that they share the same anniversary, because public defenders in many ways are this generation’s civil rights warriors,” said Jon Rapping, president and founder of Gideon’s Promise, an Atlanta-based organization that supports indigent defense.
And yet, Rapping said, injustice runs deep in the system.
“There is no other area where people of color are suffering more than our criminal justice system,” he said.
He went over the staggering numbers.
“There are roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated, in prisons and jails. White people make up about 75 percent of the (general) population, yet well over half of people incarcerated are racial or ethnic minorities if you look at the statistics,” he said. “African-Americans are nearly six times more likely to be arrested, so certainly African-Americans and people of color are disproportionately represented when it comes to people we arrest, prosecute and incarcerate.”
Former President of the Gainesville-Hall County NAACP Willie Mitchell drove to the nation’s capital for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
“I’m saying (incarceration is) another form of Jim Crow,” he said. “There are as many African-Americans in jail as slaves in the 1850s — there’s something wrong with that,” Mitchell said.
Rapping said one factor in the arrest disparity may be police policy.
“I think that there are policing decisions. I think that if you go into poorer communities, which tend to disproportionately be communities of color, that’s where police tend to focus their resources,” he said. “If you look at stop and frisk going on in New York right now, race frequently plays a role.”
Mitchell said in his neighborhood, people are aggressively “swarmed” and intimidated by police.
“They stop somebody and there’s four, five officers there. The others sit back with their hands on their weapon. We’re not talking about people who have done anything violent. It’s happening in Gainesville, Ga., right now, today. A lot of that is going on,” he said.
Both the Gainesville Police Department and Hall County Sheriff’s Office responded that they serve the community diligently and equally.
Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, explained policing strategies.
“We can say that our proactive policing strategies are in no way designed — either directly or indirectly — to target such communities. We have policies in place and mandatory annual training to prohibit and prevent such activity. We would also emphasize that a large part of law enforcement activity is complaint-driven, meaning that deputies have to go where the calls for service require, regardless of where that is or who lives there,” Wilbanks said.
He also said the department strives to reach minority communities proactively.
“Additionally, we make a consistent effort to reach out to our minority communities through crime prevention programs such as neighborhood watch, and programs that focus on our youth such as the (Avoiding Drugs Violence and Negative Choices Early) program,” Wilbanks said.
Bias and profiling
“I do think that there is a perception that African-Americans engage in crime at higher rates than their white counterparts, and I think that’s a misconception,” Rapping said. “When you look at the media, when you look at TV, when you read the newspapers, there is a tendency to put a black face on crime. It’s the image of the criminal that we kind of perpetuate, and it’s inaccurate, and one that we as a society have not shaken.”
The issue of profiling was especially prominent this year with the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman, whom prosecution attempted to portray as having profiled Travyon Martin because he was black.
“Race is a factor in terms of how prosecutors exercise their discretion. There are statistics that race is a factor sometimes that judges use in sentencing,” Rapping said, increasing the length of stays African-Americans linger in prison once arrested.
“There was a sentencing disparity when it came to sentencing people with crack cocaine. There was 100 to 1 sentencing disparity; sentences were 100 times for crack cocaine what it would be for powder cocaine,” Rapping said. “And that law has changed, it’s changed now so the disparity is 18 to 1.”
The disparity disproportionately affects African-Americans.
“The rationale you will hear is the belief that people who use crack cocaine tend to be more violent, therefore it may wreak more havoc,” he said.
Rapping said often, whether it’s if a person is followed, how a case is prosecuted or how it’s ruled on, the bias is subconscious.
“There is a whole body of research about implicit racial bias, this idea that people seem to subconsciously associate race and crime. I think that well-meaning people frequently make decisions about how to exercise judgment that feeds into this, and I think this is a national problem,” he said.
“It was the Rev. Jesse Jackson who said nothing disheartened him more than to be walking down the street and hear footsteps behind him, and to turn around and see white footsteps and feel relieved.”
Changes cut both ways
In some states, including Georgia, there has been a movement toward cutting incarceration and an emphasis on rehabilitation to reduce recidivism.
“I do think that people are starting to understand that mass incarceration makes little economic sense, and that as a society we cannot afford to deal with people by locking them away, particularly people who are nonviolent, and not threats to the community. I think it’s true that people see this as bad economic policy, particularly in times when budget and economic concerns carry more weight,” Rapping said.
Last year, Georgia’s legislature focused on the adult system, and this year, the juvenile system.
But localities have also found private prisons can cut costs, which criminal justice activists say is the wrong solution.
“Private prisons — obviously they make their money by filling beds. They have an interest in perpetuating a system of mass incarceration, so to the extent that they are able to lobby and support candidates for office, their interest is in supporting candidates who will promote mass incarceration as opposed to engaging in deincarceration,” Rapping said.
He said private prisons save localities money by skimping on costs, which adds up to less rehabilitation of prisoners.
“When you award a contract, and the lower bidder wins, a person is encouraged to do it cheaply. Spend as little as you can on housing, food, educational opportunities, recreational opportunities, rehabilitation efforts, so I think if you’re going to give contracts to the lowest bidder, it’s not necessarily the way to get the highest quality, but (a) way to do it efficiently, cheaply, and that’s not necessarily the way most consistent with justice and humanity,” he said.
Mitchell agreed, noting Gainesville hosts a Corrections Corp. of America-leased facility.
“People are speaking out about the prison system. One of the things I hope Gainesville doesn’t do is approve the CCA’s application to expand,” Mitchell said.
The Gainesville City Council recently put on its consent agenda the CCA’s request to fill 150 to 200 more beds by partnering with the U.S. Marshal’s Service.
“It’s a private thing, and they have to have a product, and the product they have is prisoners,” Mitchell said. “It’s a system that’s feeding another system, and it’s all about profits. You have to have that product, and it’s another form of slavery — what’s the difference between that and people picking cotton for a plantation owner?”
Reverberating effects on communities
“The police stop someone and charge someone with four, five different things. They say, ‘You’re facing all these charges, but if you plead guilty, we’ll throw the rest out of the window.’ They’re talking about throwing stuff out the window that should have never been in the window in the first place,” Mitchell said.
And a guilty plea to a felony carries weighty consequences, Rapping said.
“Whole populations of people that largely come from poor communities, they’re not only being incarcerated at greater rates, but they’re suffering all of the collateral consequences that go along with incarceration,” Rapping said. “When they’re getting out ... many of them are unable to live in federal subsidized housing, so many are rendered homeless; there are many jobs people can’t get with criminal convictions; licenses for certain careers; you may be unable to obtain government assistance; many have lost the right to vote; lost their ability to get educational loans.”
Mitchell said often, lacking that safety net turns people back on the wrong path.
“You’re creating a person that we decide is detrimental to society, and we paint that picture, and the results of buying into it are once they have this on their record they can’t get no job; if you’ve got family, if you can’t get a job ... you may have a person that didn’t have a chance to get an education, or rehabilitation,” he said. “And at the end of the day, the only person offering them a job is (someone who wants them) to move drugs.”
Mitchell said he has seen Gainesville families torn apart.
“You have a lot of kids out there with fathers and mothers in jail,” Mitchell said.
Rapping said when people are unable to get back on their feet, children suffer, and have less opportunity as well. “People can’t get on their feet, you have children whose parents are unable to be as productive, and it’s a cycle that renders certain communities permanently members of the outside class,” he said.
Mitchell said valuing human life, and showing compassion, in the system and outside, is key going forward.
“Maybe somebody did commit a crime, but when you start treating people inhuman, they start acting inhuman,” he said. “Life doesn’t seem to mean as much to people these days. Another thing we’ve got to do while we’re up here is come together as a people and say violence is wrong and find solutions.”
Rapping agreed, and said the compassion has to come before the effects are personal.
“We have an incredibly cruel criminal justice system. We incarcerate people in intolerable situations. We see people in the criminal justice system not as members of our community, but as others. We see them as a little less human. When it happens to one of our own — a brother, father, sister, cousin — then all of a sudden the reality of how draconian (the) system is strikes home.”