1996, Knight-Ridder Newspapers WASHINGTON - IS THE NATION'S
criminal justice system biased against racial minorities - as many
sincerely believe - or is it simply that minorities commit more
than their share of crimes?
This uncomfortable question is before the U.S. Supreme Court in
a drug case originating from Los Angeles. In broad terms, the court
has been asked to consider whether prosecutors be forced to open
their files so judges can learn whether they are guilty of
"selective prosecution" by trea ting African-Americans more harshly
But first some raw data:
About 12 percent of the U.S. population is African-American,
but over 90 percent of all people prosecuted in federal courts for
trafficking in crack cocaine are blacks.
Crack offenders, who are predominantly black, face far longer
prison terms than do traffickers in the powdered form of cocaine,
favored by whites.
Whites prosecuted for crack offenses usually wind up in state
courts, where drug sentences are almost always shorter than in the
"This case is about the ability of racial minorities to have
their claims of discrimination heard and taken seriously in federal
court," said David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University
"The real problem now is that the minority community perceives
the system as not fair, as having a double standard and not taking
seriously their complaints about race discrimination."
And that means "people are less willing to abide by the rules,
to come forward as witnesses and to vote to convict," said Cole,
who filed a brief in support of black drug defendants claiming to
be victims of biased law enforcement.
Zeroing In On Urban Areas
But U.S. Attorney Nora Manella of Los Angeles, under fire for
allegations of selective prosecution in 135 current cases, defends
a federal policy that directs the FBI to zero in on urban
neighborhoods plagued by violence, drugs and street gangs.
In Manella's territory, that means federal law enforcement
focuses on south central Los Angeles and other high-crime
communities populated largely by blacks and Latinos.
From 1992 to 1994, nearly 93 percent of federal crack
defendants in the Los Angeles area were African-Americans and
Hispanics. Most of the rest were Asians. Only one was white.
Likewise, in other large American cities federal prosecutions of
white crack traffickers are rare.
"Sure, if you want us to play a numbers game, we can go out
into the suburbs and grab some white crack traffickers," said
Charlie Parsons, the FBI's top agent in Los Angeles.
"But we've got 100,000 violent street gang members here who are
terrorizing neighborhoods. What's really lost in all this is that
the residents, who are minorities, want us there. The neighbors
applaud us when we make an arrest," he said.
The crime problem, U.S. Attorney Manella said, "is among the
inner-city street gangs, not suburban bowling leagues and women's
bridge clubs. There's no evidence that Bel Air or Brentwood or
Palos Verdes is ravaged by rampant drug-related violence. If it
were, we'd be there."
But, replied Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Timothy
Lannen: "The question is, why should a person of color living in a
poor neighborhood get four or five times the punishment as the
person living in Beverly Hills?"
Prosecutors argue that the disproportionate racial impact of
criminal prosecutions may be explained by cultural and economic
factors that push blacks and Hispanics into some types of crimes,
whites into others.
The government says that blacks dominate large-scale dealing in
crack (90 percent), while whites dominate trafficking in LSD (93
percent) and methamphetamine (73 percent), antitrust (100 percent),
pornography and prostitution violations (91 percent).
"Whites like insider trading more than native Americans. …