I am the executive director of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. From my childhood in the Arkansas Delta, to higher education in Walmart-dominated Northwest Arkansas, to New York and Los Angeles as a model and television personality, and finally to Little Rock, Arkansas, where I attended law school and currently live and work...
Justice in the Arkansas Delta is different from justice in Fayetteville. Racial disparity is part of the culture in Arkansas. See Little Rock Central High School. See the Robert E. Lee/Martin Luther King Jr. joint holidays. And the racial disparity in the Arkansas criminal justice system is one of the most alarming manifestations of this inequitable treatment.
In Arkansas, African-Americans make up roughly 17 percent of the population, but African-Americans account for a whopping 42.2 percent of the prison population. Disparities in capital punishment are more staggering. Arkansas has completed 200 executions since 1913, and 70 percent (140 individuals) of those executed were African-American. Currently, African-Americans and Latinos make up 50 percent of Arkansas’ death row.
A recent study by the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen Law School shows that for the charge of capital murder, African Americans are over two times more likely to receive the death penalty than their white counterparts. The study shows that whites charged with capital murder are more likely to receive the more lenient sentence of life without the possibility of parole. When it comes to life and death in the Arkansas criminal justice system, race matters.
When it comes to life and death in the Arkansas criminal justice system, race matters.
While some attribute this obvious disparity in treatment to overt racism, “Racial Disparities in the Arkansas Criminal Justice System Steering Committee” points to a less-talked-about culprit: implicit racial bias. Implicit racial bias is something all of us have. We all hold implicit racial biases, and unlike explicit racism, these implicit biases are activated without our awareness or intentional control. These implicit biases are shaped by: the environments we are raised in, media, and even our circles of influence. Implicit biases can help shape decisions about who we date or socialize with, where we chose to live and how we perceive the actions of others.
The first step to eliminating these biases from our criminal justice system is to identify that we have them. Harvard University has developed an implicit association test that helps to identify which implicit biases one holds. “Racial Disparities in the Arkansas Criminal Justice System Steering Committee” recommends that all players in the criminal justice system (prosecutors, judges, police officers, etc.) take the implicit association test and undergo implicit bias training to learn how to deal with personal biases. The steering committee also recommends juries be trained on implicit bias and given jury instructions on how to deal with implicit bias.
Regardless of how one might feel about the death penalty, no one should be more or less culpable because of the color of their skin. It is time for Arkansas to place a moratorium on the death penalty until we can ensure racial bias has no place in our system of capital punishment or our criminal justice system as a whole.