Welcome to the start of another year at the University of Montana Alexander Blewett III School of Law. To all returning community members, it’s good to be back here with you. To those who are new, a warm greeting, we look forward to meeting you in whatever capacity possible (adhering of course to social distancing limitations). It is our genuine hope that you all feel supported and encouraged by this community in every facet of your legal education.
In light of our nation’s long overdue reckoning with racial and socioeconomic injustices we have partnered with Professor Andrew King-Ries to raise awareness about the perpetual inequity of our country’s laws, specifically–the Criminal Justice System.
On May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. After nearly nine minutes of Chauvin’s knee pressed into his neck, George Floyd cried out for the last time, “Man, I can’t breathe.” George Floyd’s final words gained momentum and ignited a fiery response to the long history of police brutality and abuse of power directed against BIPOC communities in our country.
While George Floyd’s death sparked both domestic and international protests, his tragic story is not unique. Despite making up just over 13% of the entire US population, Black people represent 28% of all police killings in the US since the year 2013. There’s a blatant lack of legal accountability associated with this genocide. Law enforcement agencies do not fully report statistics on use-of-force violations. The police officers that killed Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman, as she slept in her home in March of this year still walk free. These police officers entered her home using a “no-knock warrant.” A warrant they applied incorrectly to her house while their intended suspect already sat in custody. Despite their obvious mistake and escalation, these police officers are protected by law.
Not only are BIPOC communities disproportionately damaged by police killings, they face mass incarceration at rates to which white people simply cannot relate. The United States currently leads global incarceration with nearly a fourth of the world’s total prison population. Of that staggering number, roughly 58% of inmates are white, 38% Black, and 2.3% are Native American. Now consider these statistics compared to the entire population of the United States. White people make up about two thirds of the US population, Black people around 13%, and Native Americans only 1.3%. One of every three Black men and one of every six Latino men will go to prison within his lifetime. Native men face incarceration at four times the rate of white men. Compare this to the one of seventeen white men who face the possibility of incarceration. A mere five percent of illicit drug users identify as Black, yet 29% of those arrested for drug charges are Black, and of all people incarcerated for drug charges, 33% are Black.
Specific to Montana, Native American people are abhorrently overrepresented in the prison system. Native Americans make up six percent of Montana’s state population, yet represent 22% of total incarcerations in Montana. Out of a rough total of 7,400 people confined to a facility in some capacity in Montana, a little over 1,900 identify as Native American.
It’s easy to stop the analysis at the obviously horrific outcomes of policing in the United States–death and incarceration. However, the seeds of racial injustice are sown in even the smallest infractions of the law, and perpetuate the legally endorsed abuse of BIPOC communities. Black and Latinx drivers are more likely to be pulled over and ticketed than white drivers. Black people are stopped without just cause at a rate five times higher than white people. This habit of racial profiling is not new. The practice shares its origins with the founding of police forces in the United States. The modern day police arose from the South’s Slave Patrol. Despite these very early beginnings, Congress waited to address racial profiling until the Traffic Stops Statistic Act of 1997. However, the bill never made it through the Senate. In response to this initial failure came the End Racial Profiling Act, yet racial profiling has only intensified in the last few decades.
The above serves only as a brief introduction and background to the racially driven disparities BIPOC community members face when subjected to the Criminal Justice System. By no means does it constitute an exhaustive list, nor a thorough analysis. We have yet to even touch on the added barrier of access to counsel BIPOC communities face, or the role socioeconomic status plays in keeping people in prison. We hope you’ll join us this semester and beyond as we collaborate with students, professors, and working attorneys to provide you thoughtful, in-depth analysis regarding specific issues and examples of systemic racism and class distinction in our Criminal Justice System. To the 2Ls and 3Ls, we hope you find this a valuable resource in integrating these prominent societal problems with your curriculum. To the 1Ls, though your response to this endeavour is less voluntary, we hope you recognize your active participation in this discussion is not a chore, but a privilege. We can all do better.
Before diving deeper into these issues together this semester, we believe it is important to recognize that while the disparities of our Criminal Justice System may be the most overt representations of racism in the law, every area of our chosen profession demonstrates a bias against BIPOC communities and those with lower socioeconomic status.
Please visit our timelines tab to put in perspective the length of this struggle. We have also provided a list of our book and movie suggestions to supplement your understanding. If you have any suggestions to add, or topics you wish to see covered in detail, please do not hesitate to reach out to your friendly neighborhood Criminal Law TA Lauren Moose at firstname.lastname@example.org (she is very good about checking her email).
For now we will leave you to consider this quote from civil rights activist Dorothy Heights:
“I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom…I want to be remembered as one who tried.”
We appreciate that you try. See you next week!