15 octubre 2015

Should criminal justice systems use race or ethnicity-based data? (Part 2)

In my previous post I wonder if criminal justice systems should collect, analyze and disseminate race or ethnicity-based data. The pros: without data it is impossible to identify systematic racial biases and address them. The cons: there might be potential misuses of race and ethnicity data that can reinforce stereotypes and justify discrimination against particular groups and, also, data showing bias can increase public distrust, damaging the reputation of the criminal justice system.

Today I want to share real examples for both sides of the coin.

The argument that data can further stigmatize was put to test in Canada and results showed that bans on race/ethnicity data do not prevent racial stereotypes and discrimination. On the contrary, racialized depictions of crime and race-based narratives widespread in the mass media are more effective at stigmatizing than data.

There are other benefits from collecting race/ethnic data in criminal justice systems:

  1. It can be used to document racial differences in fear of crime and attitudes towards the justice system.
  2. It could improve police-race relations by providing transparency.
  3. Data is a requirement if one wishes to evaluate training effectiveness.
  4. It can be used to track ethnic/racial representation within criminal justice professions (i.e., hiring and promotion practices).

The Sentencing Project in the U.S. uses data to identify biases and to influence policy. Some examples include: racial profiling (police stop and search activities), arrest decisions, police use of force, pre-trial decision-making, plea bargaining, conviction rates, sentencing, correctional treatment, prison discipline and parole decisions.

We can also find examples of race and ethnic data-based use in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Colombia, for example, indigenous people from the Nasa community is discussing conducting a culturally pertinent violence against women survey as a result of significant ethnic disparities in violence reported to the police. Also, the Social Observatory of the city of Cali has recently designed and introduced a new protocol orienting forensic doctors on how to ethnically classify victims of violent deaths such as femicides. Once fully implemented, Cali will be the first city in Colombia to know which race/ethnic groups are more vulnerable to femicides, and, hopefully will be the first to use this type of data to design policies to tackle it.

Cali hosted one of workshops the IDB has been organizing in the region to promote the dialogue about better data for citizen security, and in particular better race/ethnicity data. You can watch the video summary here (in Spanish):

So far, workshops in Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil and Colombia have engaged Government actors from Planning, Police, Justice, Health, Forensic, and also academics and civil society. Recommendations from these workshops together with detailed assessments of existing systems and race-data collection processes will culminate in a publication in 2016 of the first ever body of knowledge on the subject for the region.

Latin America and the Caribbean has today 150 million afro-descendants and 40 million indigenous people. So, it is essential that Governments recognize the importance of and support strategies that seek more reliable race and ethnicity data, not only for citizen security, but for other sectors such as health and education.

Many countries in the region already have the human capacity and the technological infrastructure to make improvements in data collection and analysis. However, in many the subject of race is still a sensitive issue diminishing the political will and incentives to make a real change. Challenges? Of course. Advantages? Many, and it is time to take them into account.

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