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The role of race in US criminal justice

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NO EQUAL JUSTICE: RACE AND CLASS IN THE AMERICAN CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. By David Cole The New Press 218 pp., $25

We love to symbolize our society's commitment to equality with classical icons like Lady Justice, with her blindfold and neatly balanced scales. And we resonate with pride to the words "Equal Justice Under Law" emblazoned over the portico of the Supreme Court. But Georgetown law professor David Cole shatters these illusions in his powerful indictment of the criminal justice system. The commitment to equal criminal justice in America, Cole suggests, is a mile wide and an inch deep.

For every black man who graduates from college each year, 100 are arrested. In one county in Florida where about 5 percent of the drivers are dark skinned, 70 percent of the drivers stopped by the police are black or Hispanic. From 1976 (when the court reinstated the death penalty) to 1998, seven white prisoners were executed for killing black victims; in the same period, 115 blacks were executed for killing white victims. The court has turned a blind eye to each of these instances of shocking racial disparity from arrest to execution.

Discrimination on the basis of economic class also pervades the criminal-justice system. In 1964, New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis wrote a powerful book called "Gideon's Trumpet." Lewis celebrated the courage of Clarence Gideon, who was found guilty of a felony he did not commit, and who pleaded to the Supreme Court in a handwritten petition for an attorney to help him in his appeal. Lewis also celebrated the generosity of Abe Fortas, later to become a justice, who argued Gideon's cause before the court without a fee, and persuaded the court that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel must be extended to everyone in jeopardy of losing their liberty through a felony conviction. Lewis could not write such a book today. The biblical metaphor of a clarion call to battle that Lewis invoked is now, in Cole's words a "horn sound[ing] only a distant, and increasingly hollow, echo." Why?

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