Juvenile Justice: Facts vs. Anger

Jerome G. Miller, D.S.W.
New York Times
March 22, 2000


The dueling reactions to the shooting of Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed black man, by a New York City police officer seemed quickly to become a contest of records — who could dig up the most about whom. It is a battle with uneven racial odds.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir made much of the victim’s “criminal record,” though it turned out he had only two convictions, both for disorderly conduct.

Detective Anthony Vasquez, the policeman whose gun killed Mr. Dorismond, has a history of his own, having shot a neighbor’s dog and pulled a gun in a bar fight, though not the same sort of official “criminal record” Mr. Dorismond had. But what, exactly, is a criminal record?

The states hold more than 55 million crime records on individuals. Any arrest generates a record, even if criminal charges are never formally made. Virtually all of the 15.3 million arrests in the country in 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, are in these records, but only 2.7 million involved incidents serious enough to be included in national measures of crime rates.

Living in neighborhoods where a disproportionate number of crimes are committed, the poor and members of minority groups are more likely to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and be picked up as suspects even if they barely match the description of a suspected criminal. Black men are also more likely than white ones to be arrested in exactly the same situation — for loitering on a street corner, for example, or for buying drugs.

Three-fourths of inner-city African-American men will have criminal records by age 36. The numbers are similar for Latinos.

Of course we need to arrest and imprison dangerous criminals. But we must avoid lumping the suspect in a misdemeanor and the convicted felon indiscriminately together under the same “criminal” label. And certainly we must avoid prejudging a situation like the death of Mr. Dorismond based on the fact that one or another of the people involved had “a record.”