Take a look around Cook County’s largest criminal courthouse and the racial divide is obvious: White prosecutors and public defenders carry their briefcases into court while black offenders stand before judges facing serious charges.
It’s not a new problem, but the rising number of black men being prosecuted and serving time in jail is undergoing new scrutiny.
Cook County Criminal Court Presiding Judge Paul Biebel Jr. has appointed a panel of high-ranking criminal justice officials to examine the make-up of defendants in the county’s criminal justice system, the majority of whom are black males and repeat offenders.
The group of judges, assistant state’s attorneys, public defenders and probation officers meets every month to study all steps of the law enforcement process to determine whether each step unfairly targets minority groups.
“Our role is to take the numbers and come up with solutions,” Biebel said. “We’re looking to be innovative and imaginative.”
The panel, which has been meeting for nearly two years, is voluntary and receives no outside funding. Biebel said the idea for the panel came from a conversation he had with a community leader who voiced concern about the racial disparity.
Biebel said there is no timetable for the panel to complete its investigation, and thus far the group has issued no findings.
Last year, there were more than 43,100 prisoners in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, and nearly 26,500, or 61 percent, were black. Approximately 11,700, or 27 percent, were white and another 4,700, or 11 percent, were Hispanic.
Nationwide, more than 60 percent of the people behind bars in 2003 were people of color, according to the American Bar Association. About 10 percent of all black men in their mid-to-late 20s are in jail, the group reports.
Although Biebel’s group is looking at all minorities and various types of crimes, its main focus is on the most common offender: black men involved in drug crimes.
Paul Street, of the Chicago Urban League, called the county’s criminal justice system “mind-bogglingly racist.”
“They’re incarcerating who they’re paying attention to,” Street said.
A 2000 nationwide study by the Human Rights Watch indicated that Illinois was one of 10 states with the greatest racial disparities in drug incarceration. Black men are sent to prison on drug charges at up to 57 times the rate of white men in those states, the organization reported.
“African-Americans are simply not 90 percent of illegal (drug) users in the state of Illinois,” Street said. “It’s just madness.”
While judges and juries at the Cook County Criminal Courts building are racially diverse, the public lawyers who prosecute and represent predominantly black and Hispanic defendants are usually white.
About 80 lawyers, or 7.5 percent of Cook County’s 930 assistant state’s attorneys, are black. In the Cook County public defender’s office, the percentage is higher: 122 lawyers, or almost 25 percent of the 494 lawyers, are black. A total of 30 percent are minorities.
That pales in comparison to the number of minority defendants who appear in court. The number of black attorneys also falls short of the number of blacks living in Cook County—26 percent of the county’s population is black and 51 percent is either black, Asian or Hispanic, according to the 2000 census.
Cook County Public Defender Edwin Burnette said that while it’s important to have a diverse group of lawyers representing criminal offenders, that won’t stop crime in certain neighborhoods.
“It’s good when individuals are in the (criminal justice) system and they see someone who looks like them,” Burnette said. “But in terms of contact with the system, I can’t say that the system would be more forgiving because there were more African-Americans in our office.”
Burnette, who is a member of Biebel’s panel, said the study is needed because it affects the people served by his office.
“It has to do with whether or not my clients were arrested because of matters of (racial profiling) or because of matters of substance,” Burnette said. “When you are arrested based on a profile . . . it undercuts the credibility of the criminal justice system.”
Biebel’s panel is considering a recent study by the American Bar Association, headed by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, which concluded that “lengthy periods of incarceration should be reserved for offenders who pose the greatest danger to the community and who commit the most serious offenses.”
The study recommends repealing mandatory minimum sentencing laws and allowing judges to consider the unique characteristics of offenses and offenders that could warrant an increase or decrease in a sentence.
It also suggests establishing more task forces at the state and federal level to examine racial and ethnic breakdowns throughout the criminal justice system—exactly what Biebel’s panel aims to do.