Chun Rosenkranz, CSSW ’15 wrote a piece in the Guardian this week, detailing his experience with sentencing disparities that ended in his friend’s death in police custody.
Eight years ago, Rosenkranz and his childhood friend, Hanuman, were both convicted of multiple felonies. Under Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code, Rosenkranz’s offenses totaled 203 points, while his friend’s points totaled 115. While Rosenkranz was never sentenced to prison despite his more serious charges, and despite the fact that Hanuman was eligible for youthful offender status, he was sentenced to six years in prison and ordered to pay $50 for every day he spent incarcerated.
“We came from the same socioeconomic background, lived in the same neighborhood and were educated in the same private school,” wrote Rosenkranz. “Our families both hired private defense attorneys. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find a case in which two defendants, with such differing sentencing outcomes, shared as much in common.”
What, then, explains the vast disparity in sentencing? The only factor left, according to Rosenkranz, is race. Hanuman was black.
“We live in a country whose prevalent narrative is that the criminal justice process is color blind, that we are all equal under the law. The creation of the point system in Florida was touted as a way to enforce that narrative. Yet the truth is, regardless of what we have been told, the color of our skin affects almost every aspect of how we experience citizenship… Hanuman’s story is not an anecdotal aberration. Numerous reports have shown that, at every stage of the criminal justice process – from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing – African Americans are treated far more harshly than whites… As white Americans, we often look the other way, simply because we benefit from this system,” wrote Rosenkranz.
This year, Hanuman died while in prison custody.
“The cause of his death is still being investigated, but we know he died shackled to a bench in the back of a prison van,” wrote Rosenkranz. “He was 21 years old. Hanuman’s experience with the criminal justice system and ultimately his death, could easily have been my fate, were it not for the color of my skin.”
Rosenkranz’s article has attracted considerable attention, including from Michelle Alexander, author the The New Jim Crow, who shared Rosenkranz’s article on via her Facebook page, adding “Rarely do we hear from white people this kind of honesty about how much they benefit from their racial privilege. This young white man bravely and honestly admits that his best friend received far harsher punishment than he did – even though his friend committed lesser crimes – and that the only explanation is race. In fact, because of race, he is alive and his best friend is dead… Thank you, Chun, for speaking the truth. I am so sorry for the loss of Hanuman.”