Review of race in Charleston County prosecutions raises questions
BY GRACE BEAHM ALFORD, THE POST AND COURIER
It’s a disturbing number that no one can feel good about, regardless of the cause: Black men make up only 12% of Charleston County’s population but 53% of the people prosecuted in state criminal court. It either means that black men commit a lot more crime than white men or that our criminal justice system is biased against them or — more likely — some combination of the two problems.
It’s true that black people tend to be poorer than white people, and there’s a strong correlation between poverty and crime. Black people also tend to skew younger, and people are more likely to get on the wrong side of the law when they’re younger. So you might expect more black men would be arrested.
But it’s also true that police find crime where they look for it, so they’re more likely to find so-called victimless crimes such as drug use in high-crime neighborhoods, which are more often black, even though black and white people use illegal drugs at similar rates. And our laws treat violent and street crime much more seriously than white-collar crime. So you might expect that more black men are actually being arrested — or that fewer white men are arrested — than should be.
As a recent analysis by the Justice Innovation Lab and Chicago’s Loyola University concluded: Charleston County’s “disproportionality in arrests may not necessarily be explained by differences in criminal behavior” but “can also be due to law enforcement practices and resource allocation that result in more people of color being stopped and arrested.”
What we can feel good about is that the disparities don’t increase as cases move from arrest to prosecution. That is, the solicitor’s office isn’t treating criminal charges against black and white men differently; to the contrary, black and white men charged with crimes are prosecuted, convicted and sentenced at roughly the same rate.
What we can feel better about is the fact that 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson invited independent researchers to review why her office convicts a lot more black people than white people, agreed to keep the review open to the public without knowing what it would reveal, accepted the initial findings rather than making excuses for differences in how black and white defendants are treated, and committed not only to correcting problems in her office but also to helping correct problems throughout the criminal justice system.
As The Post and Courier’s Steve Garrison reports, the Justice Innovation Lab’s analysis of how 24,000 criminal charges from January 2015 to February 2020 were prosecuted found that black and white men had their charges decreased at similar rates, they had their charges increased at similar rates, and black and white men with similar criminal backgrounds, facing similar charges, got roughly the same sentence. The main difference: Black men were slightly more likely to have their cases dismissed, but those dismissals took much longer than for white men.
The review found that the disparity starts before cases get to the prosecutor, not just with the number of arrests but also with who is arrested: Black men charged with crimes are younger, poorer, have longer criminal histories, have more charges per case and are charged with more serious crimes. That means they’re more likely to get longer sentences.
But it also works the other way around, the review noted: “For example, the increased likelihood of being arrested starts a cycle for Black men that leads to longer criminal histories, closer scrutiny by the police, and harsher punishments for future arrests resulting in Black men being sentenced to over 70% of all sentenced time in Charleston.”
The review went out of its way to explain that different rates of arrest don’t even prove racial bias — just as similar prosecution doesn’t prove a lack of bias. That’s because there are more factors involved in arrests and prosecutions than even a study this detailed could examine. What the numbers do is suggest questions that need to be addressed. And that’s an important reminder to everyone who thinks the differences in arrest or prison rates can be explained simply by black people committing more crime on the one hand or a criminal justice system that’s biased against them on the other.
If we ignore the role of racial bias in policing or in our laws, we enable an inherently unfair system that creates community distrust, which puts our cops in danger and can contribute to a culture of lawlessness that endangers us all. If, on the other hand, we blame the differences entirely on racism or even unconscious racial bias, we end up letting actual criminals get away with crime. And we have no reason to provide better education, better job opportunities and other solutions to poverty, which drives a lot of crime and disproportionately affects black people.
The key is to find where reality is between those black-and-white viewpoints — because we can’t identify solutions when we have bad information. Or when we see only symptoms, rather than the underlying factors that are causing those symptoms. We appreciate Ms. Wilson’s efforts to identify those causes and encourage other solicitors to do likewise. We also encourage local police agencies to move beyond their racial bias audits and work with the solicitor to dig deeper into arrest numbers in order to identify changes in policing and in society that can reduce both crime and the problems that give birth to crime.