In 2020, the killing of George Floyd, the cases of police brutality, and racial profiling of Black people, among many other events, highlighted the systemic inequities in our criminal justice system. While these problems may seem to be affecting adults of color in particular, it is clear that these disparities may arise from a young age.
A recent longitudinal study exploring differential contacts with police and eighth grade Black and white students in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) revealed that for Black students, the number of interactions with police later in life may be increased if a person’s initial interaction with law enforcement occurs in middle school.
The study was co-authored by Robert Crutchfield, an emeritus professor of sociology at the UW.
“With African Americans who were contacted by police departments in eighth grade, compared to ones who were not, they were 11 times more likely to have been arrested by the time they’re 20,” Crutchfield said.
As for white students, there was no correlation.
“If you were contacted by police in eighth grade, it didn’t affect your likelihood of engaging in the criminal justice system when you’re 20 at all,” Crutchfield said. “[White students] would recover from it.”
This study takes into account differential crime rates, with results revealing that Black people are still much more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system by the time they’re 20 than white people are, even though the former are not any more criminal.
There are a number of reasons for this disparity, which range from systemic racism in the American criminal justice system to the increased presence of police in predominantly Black schools.
“You’re going to get kids coming into contact with police if you’re a Black kid in an inner-city school much more likely than if you’re a white kid,” Crutchfield said.
Nonetheless, this difference can have significant consequences. More engagement with police can lead to increased incarceration rates, which has shown to be the case in the United States.
“Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses, even though they are not more likely to use or more likely to sell,” Crutchfield said.
Data from The Hamilton Project reveals that about 18% of white Americans commit drug offenses, whereas about 16% of Black Americans commit drug offenses. Nonetheless, Black people are about 6.5 times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes than white individuals are.
Moreover, interactions with the police, even if they do not lead to arrests, can have a negative consequence. To explain this trend, Crutchfield cited a New York state study on the stop-and-frisk policy, in which interactions with police were stress-inducing, leading to an increased likelihood of committing crime.
“In the same group, people doing research found that people who were stopped frequently and stopped aggressively can develop PTSD, and PTSD actually leads people to engage in criminal behavior,” Crutchfield said. “So frequent stops and frisks may not reduce crime, but may actually lead to more crime.”
While this study focused exclusively on students in SPS, Crutchfield believes that it is possible that these disparities exist across cities in the United States. However, he also believes that more studies need to be done to prove that this is the case.
To create this institutional change, Crutchfield argues that there needs to be increased police accountability, minimized contact between police and the community, more thorough communication between the police and community, as well as an emphasis on the idea that police are in schools to protect students and enforce legal standards, not school behavior standards.
While improvements have been made, Crutchfield makes it clear that there needs to be more done.
“We still have a long way to go to make justice equal in this country,” Crutchfield said.
Reach reporter Sheharbano Jafry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @SheharbanoJafry.
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