The City Sun, Aug. 17-23, 1988
Institutionalized Racism In The Criminal Justice System
by Michael Z. Letwin
You have heard many examples of the widespread and systemic racism in the New York criminal-justice system experienced by minority attorneys, judges, court workers and defendants. However, these experiences only reflect the fact that the entire relationship between the criminal-justice system and the minority communities is based on institutionalized racism of the most profound sort.
We have to begin with the recognition that the minority communities of New York City are economically, socially and politically disenfranchised.
Although New York City is the financial capital of the world, and despite the development boom that feeds Manhattans financial sector, the city’s minority citizens remain plagued more than ever by sweeping unemployment, low-wage jobs, crumbling housing, a disgraceful education system, laughable mast transportation and grossly inadequate social services in every other area
In addition, Blacks and Latinos in particular cannot venture into many parts of the city without fear of being assaulted by whiles because of their race.
All of these conditions dramatically have been accentuated during seven years of Reaganism and a decade of Edward Koch’s mayordom during which most of the limited gains made during the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s have been reversed.
The result is that there is a deep-seated and fundamental hopelessness about everyday life among a whole generation of young minority people, particularly young Black and Latino men. Not surprisingly, thee conditions breed crime.
It would seem obvious that the solution to these conditions and the crime that they breed lies in dramatically attacking the conditions under which she minority communities are forced to exist. Instead, the economic and political system is at best indifferent and just as often hostile to the plight of the city’s minority citizens.
Simply put, the city’s rich and their political representatives who control the city government are unwilling so address the conditions in which those communities live—in part because of the huge cost, and in part because these conditions provide them with a low-wage labor pool of minority employees,
It is hard to envision a more sinister institutionalized racism than this approach to the city’s minority community. Reflecting this approach, the criminal-justice system serves as a club against minority people.
As a criminal-defense attorney with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, I can confirm that the system displays routine, institutionalized racism at every level.
Predominantly white police routinely assault and often kill unarmed Black and Latino people with impunity; Michael Stewart and Yvonne Smallwood are only two of the most well-known examples. Defense attorneys constantly see cases where our clients and their families have been assaulted, and beaten by members of the police, corrections and other “law-enforcement” agencies. The guilty and innocent alike are subject to arrest.
At you have heard, the treatment of minority because while thousands of people are arrested and defendants is marked by days of prearraignmenl imprisoned for drug sale and possession, there are detention in filthy, overcrowded cells, often without any contact with their families; by bail set beyond their means served in other unsanitary, overcrowded and otherwise inhumane city jails; by racist contempt on the part of many court personnel, prosecutors, and even by some defense attorneys; by long periods of pretrial incarceration, threats of long sentences from prosecution-oriented judges, all of which serves to coerce guilty pleas from innocent and guilty non-white defendants; and then, by all-too-often upstate imprisonment for years at a time in facilities so terrible that white-collar defendants pay their lawyers many thousands of dollars to ensure that if they must be prosecuted, it will be in federal court where time, if any, will be served in “Club Fed.”
The irony of all of this is that the criminal-justice system’s racist and inhumane treatment of minority defendants has absolutely no impact on crime. The drug crisis is the prime example.
Crack use in particular has spread at an incredible rate, and with it crime of all kinds has risen. In order to maintain the highly addictive crack habit, users commit a range of other crimes, often against family members. Because of the fantastic amounts of money to be made in selling drugs, growing numbers of people are engaged telling the drug. Crack houses have proliferated throughout the city’s neighborhoods. Crack gangs with automatic weapons battle each other and the police in the streets. The minority communities are, perhaps more than ever before, the scene of drug-related crime and violence which has touched the lives of virtually everyone in these communities.
New York City’s criminal-justice system cannot begin to deal effectively with this situation—first of all because of the nature of the drug trade. On an international level, the federal government actively supports movements and governments which run entire national economies based on the illegal drug trade—the Contras in Nicaragua, virtually every regime in South America, and, until recently, Noriega in Panama. As long as these terrorist governments and organizations suppress the indigenous peoples in their societies and make life comfortable for America corporations, the U.S. government will back them. American banks, in turn, live in large part off foreign loan payments from the Third World, much of which depends in very large part on the drug trade,
New York City, then, is reduced to going after the small-time buyers and sellers of drugs, often through drug sweeps which round up the innocent as well as the guilty. But most importantly, arresting and imprisoning even the guilty has no impact on the drug situation.
New York City, then, is reduced to going after the small-time buyers and tellers of drugs, often through drug sweeps which round up the innocent as well as the guilty. But most importantly, arresting and imprisoning even the guilty has no impact on the drug situation
because while thousands of people are arrested and imprisoned for drug sale and possession, there are unlimited numbers of other people who are selling or using drugs because it is the only way they perceive to survive in, or escape from, the overwhelming hopelessness of their lives.
New York’s draconian drug laws, which often treat drug possession and sale much more harshly than violent crime, do result in guilty pleas from many defendants, guilty and innocent, who are simply scared to death of being convicted and of spending much of the rest of their liven in prison. These laws, however, have had absolutely no effect on the drug crisis, for the reasons discussed above. As the very least, the racist impact of the “war on crack” will continue until these drugs are legalized and there is a genuine assault on the drug crisis as the social issue that it is,
On a broader scale, a solution to the institutionalized racism of the criminal-justice system, lies in a transformation of the position of the city’s minority communities; not only in its relationship to she criminal-justice system, but in terms of the distribution of wealth and power in the city as a whole, If those in power remain unwilling to address this, the renewed movements, particularly in the city’s Black community, undoubtedly will,
Finally, I want to make clear that the institutional racism of the criminal-justice system does not stop at the door of my employer: The Legal Aid Society,
Despite the fact that Legal Aid’s clients are overwhelmingly Black and Latino, employees of she Society also face serious institutional racism. There is a long and ongoing history of minority attorneys being held to different standards in evaluations and promotions than their white colleagues in evaluations and promotion. There are very few minority supervising attorneys, particularly in the Criminal Defense Division. The low salaries paid to all attorneys at Legal Aid, which are lower than many other public sector attorneys, let alone those in the private sector, impact particularly on minority attorneys. As a result, minority attorneys leave the Society at a rate even greater than white attorneys.
The Society’s treatment of its almost entirely non-white support staff is even more of a disgrace. The support staff is paid at so tow a rate that even management admits it cannot retain a sufficient number of employees to adequately perform the everyday work of the organization. The working conditions under which all employees, particularly support staff, are forced to work, are pitiful; insufficient equipment, thoroughly unrealistic workload and other conditions, some of which are unhealthy.
These conditions not only betray a tack of concern for the position of minority employees in the Legal Aid Society Rather, this situation prevents the Society from effectively carrying out the representation of its overwhelmingly minority clients.
The Legal Aid Society, like the rest of the criminal-justice system, must begin to recognize and correct its institutional racism, an effort that the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys has all too often found the Society’s management unwilling to do.
Mr. Letwin’s views are his own and do not represent the official position of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys.