It's a travesty when people are stuck behind bars for months or even years before they have even been convicted of a crime. However, there are sometimes good reasons to deny a person bail, such as when they are an obvious flight risk or a clear danger to the community.
The nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice recently released a report on the race gap in American prisons. The race gap is the degree to which minorities are incarcerated at a rate beyond their proportion in society. For example, even though there is no evidence that African-Americans are more prone to drug crimes than whites, in 2000 they were 15 times as likely to be convicted of state-level drug crimes.
According to the bipartisan nonprofit the Prison Policy Initiative, a third of all Wisconsin county jail inmates between 2009 and 2013 were locked up solely because they couldn't afford a low cash bail. In other words, they're behind bars before having been convicted of anything.
The Center for Court Innovation, a New York-based criminal justice reform agency, recently released a study on supposedly race-neutral risk assessment tools. These tools are widely used by courts to determine whether defendants should be granted bail or held in jail until trial.
The Montgomery County, Mississippi, prosecutor seems to have made it his career mission to convict Curtis Flowers for four 1986 murders in a small-town furniture store. Over the past two decades, he has tried Flowers for the murders six times.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and a law firm filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Milwaukee Police department of operating a "vast and unconstitutional stop-and-frisk program" that targeted African-Americans and Latinos. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of six plaintiffs who had been stopped, sometimes multiple times, by officers with no reasonable suspicion that they were involved in criminal behavior.
"These sting operations have used tremendous public resources to investigate and prosecute a large number of principally minority individuals for fictitious crimes," wrote the 7th Circuit's chief U.S. district court judge in a 73-page ruling.
Two criminal justice experts have cast serious doubt on the legality of many police activities in Milwaukee. Just as many African-Americans and Latinos have claimed for years, the evidence shows that they and their neighborhoods are being unfairly targeted for police stops and pat-down searches -- often with no legal basis.
An unfortunate fact about our criminal justice system is that minorities are frequently sentenced to more time for the same crimes as whites. In the U.S., African-Americans, for example, make up 13.3 percent of the population but account for 38 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons, according to federal data.
In a highly unusual move, a nine-judge panel of district judges from around the 7th Circuit is hearing arguments on whether certain drug sting operations run since the 90s by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were racially discriminatory.