In more than 30 years on the bench, now-retired U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina saw first-hand the difficulties criminal defendants faced when they went back into the community—even after a case was dismissed. Urbina spoke last week about what he called the “ripple effect” arrests have on the larger community.
Urbina, speaking publicly on July 12 about a new report on racial disparities in criminal arrests in Washington, said the rehabilitation process was often impaired because defendants couldn't get work with an arrest on their record. Long concerned about the "collateral consequences" of arrests, Urbina participated with a group of judges in the production of the report.
The report, spearheaded by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, in collaboration with lawyers from Covington & Burling, found significant disparities in the race of persons arrested in Washington. At a time when less than half of the city's population was black, the report found more than eight out of 10 arrested individuals were black.
The results presented an "overwhelming picture of disparate impact," said Roderic Boggs, executive director of the Washington Lawyers' Committee, at a press conference July 12. Boggs called for additional investigation and said he hoped the report would spur a dialogue with law enforcement agencies.
In a statement, Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier said the department agreed that more research was needed and welcomed “the recommendation for further in depth discussion on these important issues to determine their impact on public safety in the District.”
“We have not yet had a chance to thoroughly review the report and data, but the Washington Lawyers’ Committee has looked at an important issue, and drawn some thoughtful preliminary conclusions,” Lanier said. “The criminal justice system and academia have long examined the complex relationship between arrest rates and certain variables such as race, poverty, education, and/or employment.”
The report analyzed data on all adult arrests in Washington from 2009 to 2011. Researchers found that in nine out of 10 arrests for drug offenses, the arrested person was black. The report noted that those numbers not only didn't match the city's demographics, but also failed to match surveys on drug use, which showed far less racial disparity.
Of the 142,191 arrests during the study period, the vast majority were for nonviolent offenses, especially for drug, traffic, disorderly conduct and "other assault" charges. In more than half of arrest within those four categories, the report found the arrested person was black or Hispanic.
Senior Judge Rufus King III of the District of Columbia Superior Court, who also worked on the report, said the predominance of African Americans arrested for drug offenses warranted discussion about the reason for those numbers. "It sure ought to be examined and carefully looked at," he said.
Other judges who assisted with the report included retired U.S. District Judge James Robertson and retired Judge Patricia Wald of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, who were also in attendance at the press conference, and Senior Judge John Ferren of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
The report concluded with recommendations for more research and investigation, community forums—Boggs said several are already being scheduled—and reform of local and national drug policies.