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The state of disproportionate minority contact: San Francisco & beyond

The execution of justice is not always neutral.  Unfortunately, racial discrimination remains deeply imbedded in the policies and practices of the justice system, and not merely a relic of the past.  For example, minority youth are disproportionately affected with higher arrest and confinement rates than White youth.  Experts identify this phenomenon as Disproportionate Minority Contact/Confinement (DMC).  This is a widely recognized problem, one already given considerable attention by law enforcement, policymakers, reform advocates, and community members.  The issue is national in scope, with implications directly relevant to San Francisco, California and beyond.

The W. Haywood Burns Institute, a leading nonprofit on the issue, notes in a DMC summary that, "youth of color continue to be arrested, charged and incarcerated more than White youth for similar con¬duct, and are overrepresented at every decision-making point in the juvenile justice system."  A 2002 CJCJ report identifies numerous reasons for DMC, including access to legal representation, availability of community services, and engrained racial stereotypes.  Policymakers likewise recognize DMC, as the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act of 2002 requires states that receive formula grants to assess, intervene, and monitor strategies to address the issue.

San Francisco is indicative of the ongoing challenges and possible opportunities for DMC reform. In April 2012, CJCJ released a drug policy report titled San Francisco's Arrest Rates of African Americans for Drug Felonies Worsens.  The report found that San Francisco's minority population suffered under discriminatory arrest practices.  For example, the analysis finds "African Americans experienced felony drug arrest rates 19 times higher than other races in San Francisco, and 7.3 times higher than African Americans elsewhere in California."  This report also notes that over half of all youth drug felonies involved African Americans and one-third involved Latino males, despite representing 9% and 11% of the city's youth respectively.  These figures are likely more alarming given recent reports that the SFPD misclassified statistics for Latino arrests under "white."

Yet San Francisco also demonstrates the potential to resist policies, which exacerbates DMC and even future avenues for reform.  In early August, the City abandoned plans for an aggressive stop and frisk policy modeled on efforts in New York City, where 80% of those stopped were African American or Latino and 90% found not guilty of offense.  San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón supported SB 1506 proposed by State Senator Mark Leno (D -- San Francisco) to lower penalty for possession of controlled substances from a felony to misdemeanor offense.  As previously noted, drug possession arrests disproportionably target San Francisco's minority community.  The Burns Institute notes that nationally, "White youth use drugs at a slightly higher rate than African American youth, and are more than a third more likely to have sold drugs than African American youth.  But African American youth are arrested for drug offenses at about twice the rate of Whites and represent nearly half (48%) of all the youth incarcerated for a drug offense in the juvenile justice system."

Today, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors City and School District Select Committee will address school drop-out rates and the educational achievement gap for students of color; an issue of particular relevance for DMC.  Previous research has found that school discipline, particularly the broad term "willful defiance," has a marked disproportionate influence on minority youth.  The intersection between educational barriers and justice-involvement is well documented.  Justice stakeholders and educational boards must work together to reduce DMC in the justice system through reform of school discipline processes, as well as culturally competent community policing techniques.

The public hearing is scheduled for Thursday, September 27, 2012 in San Francisco City Hall, Room 250, at 3:30 pm to 4:30 pm, and will provide an opportunity for public comment.

~ Brian Goldstein

CJCJ Communications and Policy

Keywords: Brian Goldstein, data collection, DMC, racial disparities, San Francisco

Posted in Blog, Drug Policy, Technical Assistance

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