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Commentary: Massachusetts Fights Racially Biased Three-Strikes Law

By Cord Jefferson 

As President Obama prepares to tell Americans tonight how we’re faring thus far and what we can expect in the future, Massachusetts is in the midst of figuring out the state of its justice system. A group of African-American leaders is banding together to try to block a new three-strikes bill, which comes on the heels of three decades of other states — Arizona, Texas, California, Virginia and more — enacting such laws.

While the specifics of three-strike laws vary from state to state, the bill in Massachusetts would ban parole for felons who have been convicted three times for certain kinds of felonies (exactly which felonies have yet to be agreed upon). 

Opponents of the bill argue that it will increase overcrowding in prisons and be more expensive for the state. But this bill is of particular concern to Massachusetts’s Black community because, historically, three-strikes laws are racist, hurting minorities far more than white criminals. This from a 2004 report by the Sacramento Observer, which has tracked California’s three-strikes law since 1994:

New data released recently by the Justice Policy Institute reveals that California's Three Strikes law disproportionately locks up African-Americans and Latinos compared to Whites. … According to this first-of-its-kind analysis of the racial and ethnic makeup of Three Strikes defendants, African-Americans are given life sentences under Three Strikes at nearly 13 times the rate of whites; and, the Latinos are incarcerated under Three Strikes a staggering 82 percent more than Whites. 

Just as capital punishment has been shown time and again to be racially problematic, so too is the three-strikes law. This doesn’t mean that the three-strikes law is inherently bad — though there’s a case to be made that says that — but it does mean that until it can be applied fairly and totally blind of racial biases, then it shouldn’t be applied at all. Black leaders in Massachusetts have a right to be angry at the bill, and here’s hoping they can stop it.

Posted in JPI in the News

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