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Originally published March 2, 2011 at 8:06 PM | Page modified March 2, 2011 at 8:07 PM

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Task force critical of Sanders' comments on racial bias

A task force created after former state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders said that blacks are imprisoned more than whites because they commit a disproportionate number of crimes has issued a report calling Sanders' comment "a gross oversimplification" of the criminal-justice system's racial inequalities.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A task force created after former state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders said that blacks are imprisoned more than whites because they commit a disproportionate number of crimes has issued a report calling Sanders' comment "a gross oversimplification" of the criminal-justice system's racial inequalities.

"We find the assertion that Black disproportionality in incarceration is due solely to differential crime commission rates is inaccurate," the task force wrote in a preliminary report that was presented Wednesday to the Supreme Court in Olympia.

According to its report, the Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System found that some seemingly neutral policies, in fact, had unequal impacts depending on the race of the accused. Subtle biases affect decision-making at all levels of the criminal-justice system, influencing officers, prosecutors, jurors and judges, the task force reported.

For example, the task force said its research showed that law-enforcement officers focus more "on crack cocaine — a drug associated with blacks stereotypically and in practice" and less on other drugs, which results in disproportionate arrests of blacks.

Conclusions

Among the task force's other conclusions:

• Prosecutors are "significantly less likely to file charges against white defendants than against defendants of color" and to recommend longer sentences for black defendants over white defendants.

• Juvenile defendants of color received longer sentences than white defendants for the same crimes under the same circumstances.

• Bail was issued more frequently for employed defendants, which disproportionately impacts minorities, who the task force said were less likely to hold jobs.

• While the State Patrol initiated traffic stops on different racial groups in proportional rates, minorities were more likely to be searched than whites, the report said.

According to Bob Calkins of the State Patrol, the task force's conclusions have been repudiated by a Washington State University study that found "there was no evidence of systemic racial bias in the way state troopers operate." Calkins said there have been statistics from traffic stops that can appear to show bias but turn out to be anomalies with explanations.

He said there was a period when it appeared that, according to U.S. census data, troopers were pulling over a disproportionate number of Asian drivers in Bellingham. What the numbers didn't show was that there were a high number of Asians from Canada coming across the border to shop, he said.

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"When we see these things, we look into them," he said.

Sanders attended Wednesday's presentation.

Sanders came under fire during his re-election campaign after The Seattle Times reported remarks he had made during an Oct. 7 court meeting to examine equal treatment in the courts. Sanders and Justice James Johnson, who was re-elected in the August primary, disputed the view that racial discrimination plays a significant role in the disproportionate number of blacks in prison.

The Times editorial board, which is independent of the newsroom, then withdrew its endorsement of Sanders, throwing its support behind Charlie Wiggins. Sanders blamed his loss to Wiggins on The Seattle Times.

The task force, prompted by Sanders' and Johnson's remarks, was convened by King County Superior Court Judge Steven Gonzalez, chair of the Washington State Access to Justice Board, and law professor Robert Chang, director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality at Seattle University School of Law.

Sanders said Wednesday that his comments, which he believes cost him his re-election, were taken out of context:

"What I pointed out at the conference is that it may be true that police focus enforcement on crack cocaine, but by the same token, when someone is arrested for crack cocaine, it's the judiciary's job to make sure they get a fair trial and I think they do.

"It is my view that people are in prison because they committed a crime and we don't have a lot of innocent people in prison."

Nevertheless, he said, the task force had some legitimate points and "it's always constructive when people get together to talk about problems in the judicial system."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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