Chapel Hill: Opinion

Ted Vaden: More black faces in the courtoom

By Ted Vaden

Judge Lunsford Long says he is seeing a lot more black faces in his courtroom.

Long, a district court judge serving Orange and Chatham counties, reckons that regularly more than half of defendants are African-American. That’s a noticeable change from the mid-1970s, he says, when he started his career as an assistant district attorney in those same courtrooms.

Why the increase? The answers are multiple and complex, but they all add up to Orange County’s own share of the huge problem of mass incarceration of African-Americans. Police are arresting more black people, district attorneys are prosecuting more, and judges are sending more to prison for longer terms. Contributing factors are a failed “War on Drugs” that ensnares blacks disproportionately and a tough-on-crime political climate that cranks out laws and sentences that most severely affect blacks and other minorities.

The issue was the topic of a recent panel discussion hosted by UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics. There was disagreement among the panelists about the reasons, but no one disputed that the American criminal justice system channels African-Americans into prison in numbers far out of proportion to their population.

The statistics are startling. Nearly half of the 2.2 million people in prison in the United States are African-American, even though they comprise only 13 percent of the population. The United States leads the world in the rate of incarceration of its citizens, by far – 698 per 100,000 population in this country, compared to runner-ups Rwanda (492) and Russia (446).

The problem is reflected locally. Over the last three years, arrests of blacks by Chapel Hill police have risen, from 668 in 2013 to 818 this year. Meanwhile arrests of whites have fallen, from 726 to 642.

James Williams, the Orange County public defender, several years ago counted inmates in the Orange County jail and found that nearly 70 percent were black, compared to African-Americans’ 12 percent share of the county population.

Williams blames the district attorneys, who he says can “turn off the spigot” by choosing not to prosecute minor drug offenses such as possession or seek lesser penalties. He says the war on drugs actually increases crime.

“The policies we have in place have in a lot of respects impaired public safety,” he said. “When we’ve left communities decimated by huge percentages of young people who have been sent off to prison and warehoused, then brought back without any skills, any hope of getting a job, even a place to stay, we breed this sense of hopelessness which only creates more crime.”

Jim Woodall, the Orange-Chatham district attorney, agreed there are too many blacks in prison and that many offenses shouldn’t be crimes. But he isn’t buying that prosecutors are to blame. He said his office is “very liberal, very forgiving” on minor crimes, except those dealing with selling or trafficking large quantities of drugs. Prosecutors are only enforcing laws enacted by a General Assembly, Woodall says, that is too quick to add new laws without taking ineffective ones off the books.

Ellie Kinnaird, former state senator from Orange County, agrees. State and federal lawmakers are “legislating by headline,” she told me, “The prevailing political narrative is to pile on more penalties and raise crime levels to felonies.”

Tamar Birckhead, UNC law professor, attributes the political climate to an irrational fear of crime among the populace that ignores the fact that crime is actually decreasing. The rate of violent crimes has declined in both North Carolina and the nation in recent decades, while the imprisonment rate has nearly doubled.

What explains the disconnect?

“Some would say it’s implicit or stated racism,” Birckhead said. “Some would say it’s the economic stake many elements of our society have in the prison-industrial complex – a lot of people are making a lot of money continuing mass incarceration.

“Others say it’s the war on drugs – that it’s failed. But I would think that one element that hasn’t really been addressed is that ordinary community members who feel safe don’t want to change what they think is a good thing. They just want a crime-free environment.”

After the UNC forum, I stopped by some Orange County courtrooms. In an overflowing traffic court in Hillsborough, I counted 70 African-Americans among the 158 people in court, or 44 percent.

I also visited Judge Long’s courtroom, less crowded but still about half black and Hispanic faces. Among them was an African-American man being tried on charges of passing a stopped school bus. A Chapel Hill police officer testified that the man passed the bus with flashing red lights and the stop-signal arm; the defendant said the lights were yellow and the arm wasn’t out.

Judge Long found the defendant not guilty. He told me later it was the first time he had ever found innocent a person accused of passing a school bus. I wondered if his decision had been influenced by the discussion of mass incarceration the previous evening, which Long had attended.

No, Long said. He worried about sending a signal of non-support to the police, but he found himself in sympathy with the defendant, a father of two who holds a steady job at UNC. The defendant’s lawyer made a persuasive argument that the judge should err on the side of reasonable doubt, Long said.

That’s what I would call justice, tempered with wisdom and compassion.

Ted Vaden is a former editor and publisher of The Chapel Hill News. Tell us what you think about today’s commentary at editor@newsobserver.com. Please include your name for possible publication of your comments. 

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