If it’s true that what gets measured gets done, then the new report chronicling glaring disparities in how Erie County’s criminal justice system treats whites and people of color should lead not just to outrage, but to change.
But will it?
After all, the numbers in the latest Open Buffalo report merely validate what has long been common knowledge. To quote from the study, “Representation of the African-American and Hispanic populations is disproportionately high in each stage of the criminal justice process, from arrest through sentencing. The disparities grow worse at each stage of the process.”
Blacks are three times as likely, and Hispanics twice as likely, to be ensnared as their numbers in the general population would suggest. And for African-Americans, the disparities can’t be explained by poverty alone because the percentage of blacks locked up in Erie County is higher than the percentage of blacks living in poverty.
What does explain it?
Policies – from drug laws to mandatory minimum sentences – that seem neutral but have a disparate impact, including those that send federal grants to localities based on arrest numbers, which “encourage targeting neighborhoods that are disproportionately poor and comprised of people of color.”
And while poverty doesn’t tell the whole story, it’s certainly a contributing factor. The report found that the poverty rate is 37 percent for blacks in Buffalo and 51 percent for Hispanics, compared with just 8 percent for the metro population outside of the city.
But there’s nothing new in these numbers. In fact, when the report – “Alarming Disparities: The Disproportionate Number of African-American and Hispanic People in Erie County Criminal Justice System” – was unveiled the other day, one participant recalled a similar report years ago.
If nothing changed then, why would it now?
Of course, change would be immediate if the numbers were reversed and whites were being disproportionately locked up for low-level drug crimes. Such policies would be replaced overnight by programs like Seattle’s “restorative justice” alternative to jail, which reformers are proposing here.
But when those being targeted are black and Hispanic, why should the larger population care?
Maybe because it’s wrong. Maybe because it’s ineffective. Maybe because it’s a huge waste of tax dollars.
“A lot of this is about saving money; there’s nothing more expensive than jailing people,” said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good, one of 13 groups in Open Buffalo. “It’s about making the community safer and saving money, and that speaks to just about everyone.”
But maybe an even bigger reason for optimism is that the groups pushing reform are some of the same organizations that made Buffalo change futile development policies and pay living wages to boost the economy. They’ve clearly learned how to work with – or prod, prick and push – government and business to do the smart thing.
Seattle has figured out the smart thing when it comes to crime prevention. Imagine Buffalo being mentioned nationally in the same sentence with a progressive city like that.