If you spend any time around criminal defense lawyers, progressive lawyers, or people in a black barber shop, you’ll hear the claim that African-American criminal defendants receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts. People have done studies about this, people have written reports about this, people have held conferences about this institutional expression of discrimination.
Rarely do we see anybody trying to do anything about it. There are many reasons this fundamental unfairness persists, but only one of those reasons makes any sense: at the end of the day, nobody wants to be more lenient on a convicted criminal just because that criminal is black. And nobody wants to be more harsh towards a white criminal just because he’s white. So while we have these wide variations in sentencing outcomes, judges can’t re-balance the system from the bench. They have to sentence the criminal in front of them.
But that doesn’t mean judges are blind to the racial injustice of the system. And it doesn’t mean that judges can’t do what they have to in order to make sure that a particular punishment fits the crime.
I’m sure that Judge Joseph Williams of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, will be making all of those arguments shortly. Because he just threw out a plea on the grounds that the prosecutor had been too lenient on the young criminal, just because the criminal is white.
And to be clear, this wasn’t a passing or offhand remark from Judge Williams. Instead, he really laid into the prosecutor in this case…
MSNBC reports the basic issue at play here:
A black judge from western Pennsylvania rejected a plea agreement for a man accused of fighting with police during a traffic stop, saying it was “a ridiculous plea that only goes to white boys.”
The plea agreement was for a sentence of three months probation. Allegheny County Judge Joseph Williams said on Tuesday that a black defendant in that situation would not have been treated as leniently.
This kind of thing happens all the time. White boy sits in an office with a white prosecutor, prosecutor sees a bit of himself in the impetuous youth. Suddenly, mouthing off and trying to hit a police officer during a traffic stop turns into three months probation.
But let it be a black defendant. First of all, I’m not exactly speaking out of turn here to pray that the Lord save any black man stupid enough to get into a a fight with a cop in the middle of Pennsylvania. (I joked on Twitter the other day that my biggest random NYC fear was getting shot by the NYPD — only I wasn’t joking, and it’s not a random concern.)
But whatever, assume that this theoretical black defendant ends up in the prosecutor’s office (after a brief stay in the hospital, no doubt). Does somebody really want to tell me that he’d end up with three months of probation? For “resisting arrest” and “assaulting an officer” and whatever other charges the prosecutor throws at him?
So while we know that this kind of thing happens often enough, that still doesn’t tell us if this prosecutor went easy on this particular defendant. Then again, Judge Williams thought that the prosecutor in the case, Brian Catanzarite, had a history of this kind of white leniency. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports:
“(Assistant District Attorney Brian) Catanzarite for some reason comes up with I think ridiculous pleas whenever it’s a young white guy,” Williams said. “I’m just telling you what my observation is. If this had been a black kid who did the same thing, we wouldn’t be talking about three months’ probation.”
Predictably, Catanzarite got all huffy at the mere suggestion that he’s ever done anything in his life that was prejudiced:
“Now that the court has essentially called me a racist, I think that’s unfair. I don’t make offers based on race. I make offers based on facts,” Catanzarite said.
Catanzarite went on to claim that he didn’t directly negotiate this plea deal; he was just standing in for another lawyer. And from there it wasn’t too long until the Allegheny County D.A. had to issue a statement:
Mike Manko, a spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said the plea deal was appropriate and agreed to by the officer, who was not injured.
“Negotiated pleas are never based on the race of a particular defendant but rather on the behavior of the defendant and the facts associated with that behavior,” Manko said. “The assistant district attorneys who handled this plea on behalf of the commonwealth have outstanding reputations, and we firmly stand behind their integrity and the integrity of all of our prosecutors.”
Great, so the police officer who was attacked was in on it too. Of course he was.
I’d like to tell you that Judge Williams fought the good fight and the system let him alone. But this ain’t a fairy tale:
Williams later recused himself from the case, and a white judge accepted the plea agreement for 24-year-old Jeffery McGowan.
Look, given the facts available, I think three months’ probation is probably fair for a first time offender. The point that Judge Williams was trying to make was that such “fairness” would not be extended to a black kid. This is a real problem that needs to be fixed.
But white people will never let Judge Williams get away with what he was trying to do. Voters can elect people who are “tough on crime” as much as they want, but I don’t think these same voters have the stomach to see the criminal justice system that African-Americans know about applied to middle-class white people. They don’t want to live in a world where black judges and black prosecutors treat white defendants the way that black defendants have been treated for years. They would certainly want no part of a world where a “jury of their peers” is a colored wall of people unsympathetic to little Johnny’s emotional issues.
And, well, they shouldn’t. It kind of stinks. And I wouldn’t wish it on them. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
If the judge really thinks that Brian Catanzarite uses racial factors when exercising his prosecutorial discretion, then he needed to bring these concerns up to the D.A. and see if he could convince the D.A. to start an ethics probe.
I think somewhere along the way Judge Williams forgot that basic lesson. He was trying to make a very, very important point. But it’s not a point that can be made at the expense of one random white defendant who potentially caught the judge on one of those “bad race days” that happen from time to time. You have to sentence the criminal in front of you.
And the system keeps rolling on.