26 Apr Learning to Listen
The racial and ethnic disparities that mark our criminal justice system are as stark as they are real.
African Americans make up a total of 22% of the North Carolina population, but 57% of our prison population. One published study found that African Americans are 77% more likely to be searched after a traffic stop than Whites, and Latinos 96% more likely to be searched under the same circumstances. African American youth are almost three times more likely to be referred to juvenile court than Caucasian youth. And in a recent analysis of marijuana arrests between February and August 2015, a researcher found that 62% of those arrested in North Carolina for simple possession of less than 0.5 ounces of marijuana were Black when no other charges were filed. In Charlotte, our largest city, African Americans were 5.8 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for such possession; in Raleigh, our state capital, they were 4.8 times more likely to be arrested.
But pointing out these disparities does not explain them.
And without agreement about the causes, it is unlikely we will ever reduce or eliminate such disparities. We created the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System (NC-CRED) to bring together a cross-section of North Carolinians in the criminal justice system to document racial and ethnic disparities in that system, based on unassailable data, and, through candid discussion and honest debate, to reach a consensus on their causes. Then the Commission’s really hard work begins: to find ways to reduce the role that race plays in the criminal justice system by reducing the racial and ethnic disparities.
The Commission’s goal is not to allocate blame or identify villains; instead, we seek meaningful change and greater fairness in the criminal justice system. We don’t assume that discrimination or racial animus is always the explanation for racial and ethnic disparities. But, as FBI Director Comey said in his Georgetown speech in February, what is important about discussions of race is that participants be willing not only to talk but also to listen.
The Commission is a place where such two-way discussions can take place; a forum, grounded in our confidence in each other’s good faith and our mutual respect, whereas stakeholders in the criminal justice system we can search for honest answers and effective reform.
We invite you to follow our deliberations and to use this space to contribute to our discussions and keep us focused on our goal.
“Serious debates are taking place about how law enforcement personnel relate to the communities they serve, about the appropriate use of force, and about real and perceived biases, both within and outside of law enforcement. These are important debates, and every American is free to express an informed opinion—to protest peacefully, to convey frustration and even anger in a constructive way. That’s what makes our democracy great. Those conversations—as bumpy and uncomfortable as they can be—help us understand different perspectives and better serve our communities. Of course, these are only conversations in the true sense of the word if we are willing not only to talk but to listen, too.”
James B. Comey, FBI Director, February 12, 2015