At a heated district attorney debate in Los Angeles last week, DA Jackie Lacey faced questions about why her office incarcerated black Los Angeles residents at 13 times the rate of white residents between 2013 and 2015. Lacey responded by brushing off the racial disparity as a simple fact of life, saying that by the time cases come to her, “people have made bad decisions…which requires the prosecutor to respond.”
This shameful and shortsighted argument effectively blames black people for falling victim to a system that Lacey herself has aligned to target people of color and other marginalized groups, while protecting the powerful. Lacey let slip the two-tiered nature of this system later in the debate. When it comes to putting black people behind bars, Lacey responds as if her hands are tied by their “bad decisions.” But when questioned about her refusal to prosecute police officers for on-duty shootings, she said she doesn’t “believe in prosecuting people because they made a mistake.”
For black folks in LA, this double standard means that mistakes and bad decisions are most certainly grounds for prosecution. And if we take Lacey’s explanation at face value, she seems to be suggesting that black folks make bad decisions at 13 times the rate of white people. But that of course is false, and ignores the massive structural inequality underlying race-based differences in both policing and prosecutions. Police stops, unnecessary searches, arrests, charges, and sentencing are all part of a fundamental injustice that Lacey herself has perpetuated.
For example, recent reporting found that black drivers in LA were more than four times as likely to be searched by police as white drivers, even though searches of black drivers turned up contraband at lower rates. Against that backdrop, it would appear that Lacey is fine punishing some people’s bad decisions more frequently, and often more harshly, than others.
If an equal number of black and white drivers on the 405 freeway were making bad decisions by going 10 miles over the speed limit, but police mainly pulled over black drivers, the fact that blacks were ticketed at 13 times the rate of whites would not mean that they made bad decisions at 13 times the rate of whites. Selective enforcement of the law exaggerates racial differences in crime rates.
Then there are bad decisions that may, in fact, be complete fabrications, as indicated in recent reporting about officers falsely labeling people of color as gang members.
Lacey’s response also falls short when considering that one-third of people locked up in Los Angeles County jails—a population that is overwhelmingly black and brown—have exhibited symptoms of mental illness. We bear collective responsibility for the broken healthcare system that leaves so many members of our community untreated and uncared for. If the bad decisions that have gotten these people in trouble are related to mental health issues, it is surely not sufficient to place the blame squarely at their feet with no consideration of the root cause of the behavior, or how that root cause implicates all of us.
But perhaps most revealing, Lacey’s response shows that she’s blind to the ways her decisions as a prosecutor only exacerbate the desperate circumstances that can lead to these so-called bad decisions. Throughout her career and her remarks at the debate, she’s made clear that she believes the job of a prosecutor is simply to mete out punishment, rather than to seek justice. A more holistic view of the role of a prosecutor considers the full impact of punishment, both on individuals and their families and communities, and attempts to limit harm accordingly.
Lacey may be right that certain bad decisions require a prosecutor to respond, but by routinely opting for responses that heap unnecessary pain and desperation upon those who get caught up in the criminal justice system, she is only making those bad decisions more likely. For Lacey to enforce the law in ways that strengthen this destructive cycle—specifically in black and brown communities—and then to blame those residents for the harm they face as a result is proof that she is incapable of honestly addressing the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.
Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California. He is the author of the book Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism, and the play Race, Rap and Redemption.
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