For anyone who wants a quick read on the devastating effects of race and class on the criminal justice system, you should check out No Equal Justice by Georgetown law professor David Cole.
For a much closer home look at the effects of race and class, one need look no further than the criminal cases of Ryan Greenberg and Graeme Kapko. Both defendants – white, men aged 17 – killed innocent victims. Greenberg killed a young man by steering a boat over him. Kapko killed a mother of two returning from her factory job by steering his car, going 85mph into her car after returning from a boozing party. Both young, white men hired powerful lawyers: William Devereaux for the former and House speaker William Murphy for the latter. And punishment for these deaths? Greenberg gets a ten year sentence with only work release and probation. Kapko gets only two years of home confinement and no jail time.
Compare these two death cases with that of defendant Abimbola Johnson, an 18 year old, black girl accused of killing an innocent victim.
Judge Edwin J. Gale called Johnson a “dangerous person with a dark heart,” before he sentenced her to the maximum allowed under the conditions of her plea agreement: 50 years, with 25 to serve at the Adult Correctional Institutions and 25 years suspended. Johnson will also serve 25 years of probation, pay court costs and undergo anger-management counseling.
While clearly the details of these three cases can be debated, the difference in disposition can be hardly justified without getting into issues of race and class.
Thankfully, there are justices like Superior Court Associate Justice O. Rogeriee Thompson, currently a likely nominee to the First Circuit Court of Appeals, who understand the harsh disparities in dispensing justice. This is from a 9/25/2000 story from the Providence Journal:
Superior Court Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson said the state court system needs to study hiring and sentencing of minorities to see if they are treated unfairly.
Thompson, a member of the state judiciary’s permanent advisory committee on women and minorities in the courts, said judges and court employees also need sensitivity training to provide a “fairer and more just court system.”
Generally, surveys indicate that Rhode Islanders find lawyers too costly, litigation takes too long, and judges treat whites better than minorities.
In interviews at various courts earlier this year, residents voiced as much.
“If you are a black male like myself, even before you explain your story, they’ve already concluded what the sentence will be,” said William Parker, 21, of Providence, who was leaving District Court.
Debra Constant, an unemployed 22-year-old from Providence, complained during a break from a Family Court hearing that “I’m a lower-class woman. I don’t have money” to hire a lawyer who could help her succeed in court.
“I don’t have the power,” Constant added, “and I sometimes think the judges side with people with more power. They say innocent until proven guilty; in my case, it’s guilty until proven innocent.”
And this 4/6/99 story from the Providence Journal:
Is there a racial bias in Rhode Island’s criminal justice system?
In her 11 years on the bench, first in District Court and now in Superior Court, Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson thinks she has seen it.
Speaking at a recent forum at Brown University, Thompson recalled one day when the bias struck her as particularly clear.
She was in District Court, Wakefield, handling arraignments. One after another, she was presented with a group of white men and a group of black men.
The white men were seniors at one of Rhode Island’s top private schools, Thompson said. They were staying in a house on Block Island, and just for fun, they broke into several neighbors’ houses and took their stereos and other items.
Normally, people who do that are charged with breaking and entering, a felony, Thompson said. But this time, the police took a stance of “boys will be boys” and charged them only with trespassing.
The prosecutions officer recommended that the cases be filed for a year – to be dismissed if the young men stayed out of trouble – and that they be ordered to make full restitution and perform community service.
“We don’t want to wreck their whole future,” Thompson recalled him saying. She took his advice.
Then came the black men.
They were three students from out of state who had been driving to Boston, Thompson said. The state police stopped them on the highway. They were ordered to get out of the car, and the car was searched. A knife was found in the console, and they were all arrested.
The charge was possession of a knife, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a $ 1,000 fine. The young men were ready to plead guilty at their arraignment, Thompson said.
She was appalled.
First of all, she told the trooper who brought them in, having a knife in the console of one’s car is not a crime. The law prohibits carrying a concealed weapon on one’s person, she said. If it banned the possession of knives altogether, she said, “How would you take home a set of steak knives you’d just bought from Apex?”
Thompson dismissed the charges and set the students free. But years later, she still thinks about them.
“It was the starkest example of the lingering effect of racial disparity in our criminal justice system,” she said.
And here we are, nearly ten years later and we are still seeing the “lingering effects of racial disparity in our criminal justice system.”