Veronica Rountree may have turned her life around, but she believes her children are still paying the price for the way she raised them.
The Troy resident’s voice boomed across the small second-floor office of the Center for Law & Justice in Albany as she pleaded for help.
“I have children, nephews, nieces in prison because of my upbringing, teaching them the wrong way of life,” Rountree said. “They didn’t stand a chance with me as a mother, using drugs and living a criminal life. So how can I help them now after turning my life around and wanting to help these kids come home that are getting [convicted] for selling drugs? The reason they sold drugs is because they were hungry. I taught them this. I taught them this criminal lifestyle.”
Speaking out and raising awareness is a start, Center Executive Director Alice Green said during a Thursday morning news conference. The session highlighted the discoveries of a new report titled “The Disproportionate Impact of the Criminal Justice System on People of Color in the Capital Region.”
Minorities, and blacks in particular, have found themselves in the midst of a new Jim Crow era, said Green. And the Capital Region criminal justice system is to blame, she said. But local law enforcement officials say race isn’t their focus and to imply institutionalized racism is simply misleading.
The Center for Law & Justice released local statistics at the Thursday news conference where only a handful of people — mostly members of the media — showed up to hear about what the activists call the disparate treatment of minorities within the criminal justice system.
Green led the conference, providing commentary and statistics on the first of three reports the center plans to release on the topic.
Statistics from state and local criminal justice agencies and the U.S. Census Bureau were gathered to demonstrate what the Center called a “shocking” disproportionate representation of minorities among arrests, convictions and state prison sentences in Schenectady, Albany and Rensselaer counties.
Question of balance
Minorities are sentenced to state prison at a rate about three times their representation in the general population in Schenectady and Albany counties, according to 2010 data from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Specifically, minorities represent 23 percent of Schenectady County’s population and 68 percent of the Schenectady County residents sent to state prison.
Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney commented on this in a later phone interview, but said the findings are no proof of racism. To prove that, he said, the center would have needed to compare white and minority populations who are similarly situated.
“You’d have to take a white 18-year-old kid and a black 18-year-old kid both arrested for armed robbery,” he said, “and then ask, ‘What does the system do with those kids?’ And my belief is there are not substantial differences in the way they are treated. But that’s a very complicated research project.”
The report does not attempt to quantify what percentage of crime is committed by minorities. But it does assert that the over-representation of minorities with prison sentences is a result of their over-representation among arrests and convictions.
In Schenectady County, minorities represent 51 percent of those convicted and 48 percent of those arrested. That arrest rate grows to 61 percent when the data is examined in only the city of Schenectady, which has a larger minority population than the rest of the county.
Schenectady police spokesman Lt. Mark McCracken said that although the department has not had a chance to review the center’s new report, the race of those committing crimes is not the department’s focus.
“The Schenectady Police Department combats crime through intelligence-based policing,” he said, “focusing on current crime trends and locations for enforcement action in order to make Schenectady a safer place to live, work and visit.”
The Center also examined the consequences of a criminal conviction on these populations, finding that minority populations often face barriers to educational, employment, housing and civic opportunities, including the right to vote. All of these factors combined lead to widespread poverty within these communities, said Green.
The cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy are the most concentrated locations for each county’s black population. The report examined the racial makeup of the three cities’ police departments, and found that they do not reflect the diversity of their communities.
Four percent of Schenectady Police Department employees are black, while 20 percent of the city’s population is black.
These skewed rates are found nearby, as well. Nine percent of Albany Police Department employees are black, while 31 percent of the city population is black.
This is a problem, the center concludes, because such a disparity between the community and its police force has historically contributed to a rocky relationship.
Although the Schenectady Police Department launched a 2009 campaign to recruit minorities, the overwhelming majority of new officers sworn in since then have been white males, according to the report.
Attention was brought to these statistics in 2010 when Schenectady Police Chief Mark Chaires — the department’s first black chief — told The Daily Gazette that minorities bring a unique perspective to the police force. However, he said, it’s difficult to hire minority officers because of competition from nearby departments like Albany and Troy.
If applicants score well on the Civil Service exam, the rest of the application process is so standardized between background checks, lie detector tests, agility screenings and psychological exams, said Chaires, that there is no room for racial discrimination in hiring practices.
McCracken said Thursday that the department is still hiring officers who turned out during the 2009 campaign. And the department has actively attempted to bring the percentage of minorities employed as sworn officers more in line with the population it serves, he said.
“The main focus of the department and its administration is to provide the residents with the most qualified applicants it can find,” he said, “regardless of race, creed or gender.”
The Law & Justice Center recommends several ways to alleviate the disproportionate representation of minorities in the local criminal justice system, calling for a regional review of policing, prosecution, public defense and sentencing policies and practices.
It recommends that local law enforcement be trained in cultural competency and it calls on prisoner, civil and human rights advocacy groups to lobby for the passage of state and local legislation that would promote the use of alternatives to incarceration and remove legal barriers to education, housing and employment for those with criminal convictions.
Carney said he doesn’t question the center’s statistics, but he does question its conclusion of institutionalized racism within the criminal justice system. In addition, it doesn’t deal constructively with the problem, which he calls a societal problem rather than a criminal justice problem.
“We’re aware of this problem and we are trying to address it,” he said. “Not by studying the disparities but by trying to address the underlying reasons. So why are young African-American men joining gangs? Why are they selling drugs, using guns and dropping out of school? Those are the things that we as a society need to address.”