UC Berkeley law professors examine intersection of race, criminal justice

UC Berkeley School of Law
Kevin Chan/File
During an event hosted by the UC Berkeley School of Law, four campus professors discussed how racial discrimination influences the criminal justice system.

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UC Berkeley School of Law held a virtual campus conversation Monday on the relationship between race and the criminal justice system.

The conversation was livestreamed on YouTube, with nearly 100 concurrent viewers at its peak. Four UC Berkeley professors, each with a different expertise, were featured in the discussion.

UC Berkeley assistant sociology professor Armando Lara-Millan was the first to present.

“The relationship between criminal justice and race is based on what law enforcement treats as a crime,” Lara-Millan said in his opening statement. “The police in a community decide whether a noise complaint or everyday dispute becomes an officially recognized crime, and this decision can be influenced by officers’ implicit biases.”

Lara-Millan alleged that law enforcement treats residents of wealthier, upscale neighborhoods differently from residents of poorer neighborhoods.

To certain communities, the police are generally helpful and dependable, Lara-Millan added. Other communities, however, experience the police as a threatening, unforgiving force. In turn, the police create neighborhood reputations, and these reputations often exist across a racial divide, Lara-Millan said.

Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor and director of the campus Death Penalty Clinic, spoke next.

“Capital punishment, as a practice within the criminal justice system, has long been influenced by racial discrimination,” Semel said during the event. “In the colony of Virginia, for instance, there was only one crime — murder — for which a white person could be executed, but 66 for which a slave could be put to death.”

Semel added that current capital punishment statistics continue to reflect racial inequality, as Black Americans today make up 13% of the U.S. population yet 42% of those on death row.

The third speaker was Jonathan Simon, a UC Berkeley professor of criminal justice law.

“Racism infects every aspect of our criminal justice system. … The two are inseparable,” Simon said during the event. “Adding to this, over the last half-century, we’ve tried to fit every societal ill into the box of criminal justice.”

Simon added that the results of this criminal justice strategy have been “catastrophic.”

After the four experts presented, the conversation turned to an audience Q&A, during which viewers asked about immediate changes that could lessen the criminal justice system’s racial harms.

“In terms of immediate ‘low-hanging fruit’ reforms, we should end stop and frisk, as it’s an invitation for racial profiling,” Simon said during the event. “Also, the police shouldn’t be dispatched to minor crimes, and other bodies should deal with mental health and homelessness.”

The conversation was the fourth in a series of UC Berkeley talks on race. The next conversation will examine race and the environment and is set to take place in two weeks.

Contact Mattias Hoz at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @hozmattias.