It seems like the question of race and discrimination in the criminal justice system in the U.S. will be staying in the headlines even after the Diallo murder trial fades into the distant past. Muslims and African-Americans will keep the issue alive in the wake of the recent arrest of Imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin of Atlanta. At least I hope so.
Is it unreasonable for Muslims and African-Americans to be concerned about the peculiarities of the Imam's situation? The "facts" of the alleged shootout are still unclear and what little information is available, raises some serious issues about this particular case. Moreover, as evidenced by the Imam's encounter with the system in 1995 when he was apparently falsely accused of aggravated assault at the urging of authorities, the establishment does not have clean hands when it comes to dealing with him. Indeed, the Imam's attorney in that case, Michael Hauptman noted at the time that, "Given all that has gone on in his life, he [Al-Amin] would have to be an idiot to believe that he was not targeted by the police."
In a positive light, the Imam's arrest is bound to revive issues of much broader concern to Blacks, Muslims and other minorities: their treatment by the Justice system.
My criminal law professor once said that if her aim was to rack up a good acquittal record as a defense attorney then she would turn away all minority clients -- particularly blacks and natives -- without even asking them a single question. Indeed, her view was confirmed three years later by a government commissioned study that has since been shelved in the backroom of some the bureaucratic maze. The 1995 Report of the Commission to Study Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System found that 61% of the Crown Attorneys (Prosecutors) thought that discrimination existed in the System. The report concluded that Blacks and Natives were more likely to be imprisoned at both the pre- and post-trial stages, not because they are inherently more criminal, but owing to the arbitrary exercise of discretion against them at each stage -- the charge, arrest, detention, prosecution and sentencing.
In the U.K., according to the British Home Office, Black people were on average five times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by the police. Minority communities are over-represented among those at the receiving end of the criminal justice system while they are seriously underrepresented in the administration of the system.
What about the situation in the "land of the free and the home of the brave," you ask? A survey conducted last year by the American Bar Association (ABA) found that 80% of people believe that, "in spite of its problems, the American justice system is the best in the world." Sure it's one of the best systems, if you are the right color and/or can afford a dream team legal defense. In reality, the situation in the U.S. is no different from Canada or the U.K and perhaps some other countries. In fact, I would venture to claim that the American scene is a lot worse than Canada and the U.K. One need not be a rocket scientist to figure out that the ABA results would have been drastically different if the survey was conducted among African-Americans, Natives and Hispanics.
A closer look at the situation paints a very bleak picture indeed for certain segments of American society, African-Americans in particular. For instance, many of us have joked about the offense of "driving while Black." Well this joke has become all too real in far too many cases. In fact, Amnesty International listed this kind of racial profiling as part of the "widespread and persistent problem of police brutality" in the U.S. And if Amnesty is not credible enough, this is confirmed by a 1998 report released by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee which found that 72% of all drivers pulled over for routine traffic stops were Black, while they constituted only 14% of the national population. Image what the real impacts of such practices are in other areas of law enforcement? Indeed even Arabs and other racial and religious minorities are no strangers to profiling when it comes to the hunt for terrorism.
According to the Correctional Association of New York, the Big Apple may have taken a big bite out of crime but 1/3 of the black men in their 20's is in prison, on probation or on parole.
Recent figures put out for California by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found that almost 40% of black men in their 20's are in prison, on probation or parole on any given day. California's "three strikes" sentencing law is also impacting certain groups disproportionately. The San Francisco-based group's study also found that blacks were 17 times more likely to be caught by the new stricter law. Willie L. Brown, Jr., the Mayor of San Francisco, addressing a news conference held to release the Center's findings said, "It doesn't take a genius to realize something is wrong when you look at the numbers."
Yes, something is clearly wrong when Blacks are only 7% of the population in California but account for 32% of the prison population; when police officers can be so scared of a Black man that they would fire 40 shots before they learn that he was unarmed; when more than 20 men -- almost all Arab and/or Muslim -- are sitting in prison on secret evidence; and when the level of policing is a function of the economic and/or racial status of the neighborhood.
In 1989 during one of our summer driving tours through the U.S., my family and I were surprised to be pulled over twice in an upscale neighborhood just outside New York City in a matter of 30 minutes. Meanwhile, we were hard pressed to find a cop to ask directions in the less desirable neighborhoods a few streets down. Were we pulled over because six brown people in an old beat up 1976 Volare just did not belong in the rich neighborhood?
Getting tough on crime by building more prisons and imposing harsher penalties may win votes and provide temporary respite but do not solve the root causes: social problems, housing shortages, unemployment, family breakdown, and the multitude of complex issues confronting the inner cities. As Criminologist James Q. Wilson of UCLA told the Philadelphia Tribune, there is no easy answer but society must "try to profoundly change the circumstances of people in their early years of life."
Discrimination in law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing contribute to the problem and must also be tackled. The vicious circle fueled by the systemic and entrenched discriminatory practices, police targeting and profiling and the mistrust and downright hatred of the police will continue unabated.
What can society expect from individuals who come out meaner and tougher than before their encounter with the Justice system? Can our societies continue to tolerate or even withstand this?
Some critics liken the race card to a "Get out of jail free card" in Monopoly. Far from it. Claims of discrimination must not be dismissed. On the same note, they should not enable criminals to get away on technicalities. For the rule of law to prevail and the justice system to gain respect in the eyes of disenfranchised communities, the issue of racism -- whether actual or perceived -- must be tackled head on. The system could not ask for a better opportunity to begin this process by ensuring that Imam Jamil gets a fair and transparent trial and allegations of targeting by the Imam and his supporters are investigated by an independent body. Indeed, this is also an excellent occasion for national Muslim, African-American and other civil rights organizations to push for a thorough examination and investigation of race, discrimination, profiling and unfairness in the Justice system.