Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Stereotypes and Statistics in the Administration of the Criminal Justice System

An interesting case that I came across while doing readings for Equal Protection. The case of United States v. Armstrong was decided before the US Supreme Court in 1996 and it returned to the the above issue post McCleskey v. Kemp (1987).

Facts: Armstrong, the defendant was an African American who had been charged with "conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 'crack' cocaine". Sought discovery from the prosecution to gather evidence supporting his claim that the government was not prosecuting similarly situated suspects of other races.

Trial history: Court of Appeal upheld order granting request

Holding: 8-1 reversal on basis that the defendant had failed to make threshold showing of similarly situated individuals of a different race were not prosecuted

Reasoning: Threshold showing is “a credible showing of different treatment of similarly situated persons” on the basis that it struck the best compromise between government’s interest in prosecution and defendant’s interest in avoiding selective prosecution

The Supreme Court derided CA for reaching its decision in part on the basis that it started “with the presumption that people of all races commit all types of crime – not with the premise that any type of crime is the exclusive province of any particular racial or ethnic groups” without any backing and appears contradicted by the (then) most recent statistics of the US Sentencing Commission

“Presumptions at war with presumably reliable statistics have no proper place in the analysis of the issue” and here are the interesting stats they cited, >90% of person sentenced in 1994 for crack cocaine trafficking were black; 93.4% 6f convicted LSD dealers were white; and 91% of those convicted for pornography or prostitution were white

I think there is an element of begging the question and putting the cart before horse but I think they is also some truth to the argument that sometimes the discrepancy is not due to some form of invidious discrimination but reflects the reality of the situation.


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