October 2, 2007

Demographic Disparity

Yesterday, I sat in the morning session of traffic court. Up here, they do arraignments in the morning and trials in the afternoon. The arraignment calendar is, predictably, very long. There are also a lot of preliminary matters that the clerk deals with before the judge (yesterday, that was me) comes out to actually hear the various cases. So it was nearly quarter to ten before I took the bench and had to deal with a calendar of between 100 to 120 cases.

The basic arraignment process is simple -- I read the defendant's name and the charges made against them, and take a plea. If the plea is "not guilty," the clerk advises me of the trial date, and in some cases bail is set. If the plea is "guilty" or "no contest," I advise the defendant of his or her Constitutional right to a trial, to have an attorney at the trial, to present evidence and to cross-examine the police officer who wrote the ticket. The defendant waives those rights, and I refer the defendant to the clerk to compute the amount of their fine. If the defendant doesn't answer when I call their case, it's a non-appearance and I issue a bench warrant. The clerk tells me the amount of bail, which is usually between $25,000 to $75,000. I must have issued bail orders amounting to a total of over half a million dollars yesterday.

During court, my focus was on trying to get through the calendar in a reasonable time. Because there were so many preliminary matters, half of the time in the morning session was consumed before I could go to work, so I'm not surprised that we ran long. I didn't have a lot of time to think globally about what was going on while I was doing it; I just tried to be efficient and respectful of everyone and to do what I needed to do so the court's business could get done.

But when describing things to The Wife last night, something struck me. Something like a third to half of all the defendants I saw yesterday were Black. The vast bulk of the rest were Latino. Whites and Asians made up a very small number of the cases I saw; I doubt if I saw 20 defendants who were from those two racial groups. According to the U.S. Census, Lancaster is a little bit under three-quarters White, less than 13% Black, and less than 15% Latino. Palmdale's demographics are within a percentage point in all of these categories.

Whites were dramatically underrepresented in the traffic court; Blacks and Latinos were dramatically overrepresented. What theories might explain this? I came up with four, none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive to the others:

1. The police are racists.

2. The police patrol more frequently in areas where Blacks and Latinos congregate.

3. Blacks and Latinos drive in a manner to attract more tickets than other racial groups.

4. Whites and Asians tend to mail in and forfeit their bail rather than show up for arraignment on a traffic ticket.

I recognize that theory #3 is, itself, a racist theory. That does not mean that we can dismiss it out of hand, but it does mean that its validity is particularly suspect. The likely validity of theory #1 also probably depends on your race; if you are Black, you will tend to be more likely to consider that theory valid than if you are White.

But it seems to me that the more profitable and useful areas of inquiry are theories #2 and #4. The explanation underlying those theories would certainly be more pleasing to me than the theories that involve someone (either the theorizer or the police who are the subjects of the theory) being a racist. And, #2 and #4 dovetail into other observations I've made about the behavior of people.

Specifically, it's that a person's economic status is the most powerful governor and predictor of their behavior. Race matters less than money.

The police have noticed that economically disadvantaged areas have higher rates of violent, property, and drug-related crime and therefore they patrol those areas much more frequently, because that's where the crime is. It also happens to be the case that Blacks and Latinos are more frequently economically disadvantaged (for some fairly sinister historical reasons, we must concede) and therefore they are, disproportionately, the subjects of those patrols. Traffic citations provide a sample of the results of police patrols.

Combine this with the idea that Whites and Asians are more economically advantaged, and therefore will tend to have more disposable income. As a result, when people with some money get traffic tickets, they may find it easier to simply mail in a check with their bail money (which is equal to their anticipated fine) and forfeit the bail. These people value their time more than their money, and would rather give up a few hundred dollars than take the time to appear in court and plead "guilty." They also have easier access to financial devices -- mainly checking accounts -- that make such a transaction convenient.

They thereby avoid the experience of going to court altogether. To them, the court is an envelope and maybe a phone call or a visit to a website. It is not a long line to get through the weapons screen in a large, intimidating building, a lengthy and tedious lecture about legal procedures and paperwork, nor a scary call before the bar to face a stranger wearing a black robe sitting on an elevated bench.

So, great, you say. You've figured out that Blacks and Latinos tend to be less rich than Whites and Asians. Woo. Big insight there, TL -- thanks for playing!

But no, I've also observed one of the tangible non-monetary effects of that economic disparity -- which is having to physically go to court, or not, to handle the same sort of legal problem. Given that the fines are the same as the bail, on a violation-per-violation basis the monetary cost of going to court is the same for everyone. But Blacks and Latinos face an added cost of having to spend time in court as well.


Sheila Tone said...

Your Honor:

What happens to a nice white girl who paid the ticket plus the traffic school fee, but blew the deadline for traffic school because she was busy moving and working so very very hard?

When she looks up her ticket online, it says that bail is forfeited, no future dates.

Burt Likko said...

I'd have to confirm it with the clerk in Department A-3, but I believe that said defendant, regardless of her race or gender, can petition for anew deadline for traffic school completion upon a showing of good cause. Yours Truly cannot, obviously, be the person who decides whether a claim of working a lot and moving is sufficient constitutes a showing of good cause, but I suspect that said defendant might need to have a few more facts than that available for the showing -- perhaps a very heavy trial schedule?