Unequal justice: City and county seek feedback on criminal justice disparities

MGT Consulting Group held a series of listening sessions to hear about community members’ experiences with the local criminal justice system. The group is working on a disparity and disproportionality study, and plans to make recommendations this summer. Photo by Martyn Kyle MGT Consulting Group held a series of listening sessions to hear about community members’ experiences with the local criminal justice system. The group is working on a disparity and disproportionality study, and plans to make recommendations this summer. Photo by Martyn Kyle

To the list of racial disparities in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, we can add arrest rates: According to a new study, African Americans are booked at significantly higher rates than whites at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, and the greatest disproportionality occurs during felony arrests.

This is a national problem—black adults are 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, according to The Sentencing Project, and racial disparities exist in every stage from arrest rates to the lengths of sentences. But to address the problem locally, City Council hired an independent consulting firm to collect data on both the city and the county, solicit community feedback, and make recommendations for change. While it’s mostly being funded by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, the city is picking up $10,000 of the $100,000 tab.

After 10 months of analyzing data, MGT Consulting Group—a “disparity solutions” consulting group with approximately 10 offices across the country, and one in Richmond—held four community meetings to gather additional, firsthand experiences from folks such as ex-offenders, victims, witnesses, cops, jail staff, and attorneys.

At the first meeting, on April 25 at Jack Jouett Middle School, MGT announced that although the disproportionality is smaller when it comes to misdemeanor arrests, black arrest rates are still considerably higher.

This isn’t news for some.

“You’re probably saying this is something you already know,” admitted project director Reggie Smith. He added that the firm will not release any other, more specific, data until the study concludes in June.

He then turned the floor over to the first speaker, a woman who came to talk about her experiences with law enforcement. She was recently involved in a small fender bender, called the police for safety, and ended up behind bars, she said.

This was a story that other people in the room knew too well, and some nodded their heads in support. “The whole call went so wrong, and I felt like, ‘Lord, I shouldn’t have called the police,’” the woman said.

When the man she collided with became aggressive, she said she felt unsafe and called for help. And when the cop arrived on the scene of the already-tense situation, she said, “He automatically assumed I was the aggressive person. …We went back and forth, but nothing disrespectful, and he placed me under arrest.” Her charges? Disorderly conduct and DUI.

When the officer indicated that he smelled alcohol, she said she admitted to having a beer, which she told him wasn’t against the law. She said she then refused a breathalyzer test because she didn’t know her rights. The cop took her to the magistrate’s office to swear out a warrant for a blood test, which was then administered at UVA. After the test, she said he took her back to the jail, where staff gave her the option of staying locked up until they could ensure she wasn’t drunk, or taking the breathalyzer test to prove her sobriety. When she opted for the latter, she blew a 0.02 percent, she said, well below the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

Her car was towed from the scene—even though she said her sister and neighbor were on-hand to park it in her driveway—and now she’s hoping to be reimbursed for the $250 it took to get her car back.

“If it had been a white woman, then it would have been handled totally differently,” she told the consultants.

Another person talked about the disproportionate police presence at race-related protests compared to demonstrations about gun control or the environment, and specifically noted the large number of undercover cops in unmarked vehicles at the recent Charlottesville High School Black Student Union protest in McIntire Park.

“It’s something about race,” she said. Referring to the police, she added, “Something about anti-racist activists just trips their trigger.”

A man told the consultants about recently buying a house in a new neighborhood. One day before move-in, he went to check out his new digs during his lunch break, and said he noticed a white woman following him through the neighborhood in her car. When he parked outside his new house, she did, too. And when he introduced himself, he said she refused to give him her name, said he was “harassing her,” and called the police.

“I just walked away because I didn’t want to be the next Trayvon Martin,” he said. “It’s just this idea that I can’t even exist without the police being called on me for being in a place that someone thought I shouldn’t be.”

The last person to speak was Darrell Simpson, a former Sheriff’s deputy in Rockingham County who has also worked as a case manager for the Department of Corrections.

“One of the reasons I left that line of work is the disparity and disproportionality that I witnessed, and the fact that my viewpoints were in the extreme minority,” he said, adding that he often witnessed racism from “inside the walls. …I didn’t feel like I was really a part of the family in any of those settings, so I decided to get out.”

Harold Folley, a community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, attended the April 27 meeting at the Carver Recreation Center, where he says approximately 10 or 15 people shared their stories.

He notes that MGT didn’t share any specific data it has collected, and that most people are already aware of the local disparity.

“You didn’t have to do a $100,000 study to say, ‘Oh my God, this is happening,’” he says.

And perhaps there was a relatively low turnout because people have little faith that this study—or any study—could actually have any influence on the criminal justice system.

Says Folley, “They just feel like nothing’s going to change.”

 

Corrected May 1 at 12:55 to show that the disproportionality is smaller when it comes to misdemeanor arrests. We originally reported the study showed that the disparity is smaller when it comes to misdemeanor arrests.

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