Black victims underrepresented in named violent crime laws
By JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press
CLEVELAND (AP) — The slayings of Reagan Tokes and Alianna DeFreeze had much in common.
Both were abducted, raped and killed in Ohio in 2017. Tokes was a 21-year-old college student, DeFreeze a 14-year-old seventh grader. Both their killers were previously convicted sex offenders.
Yet only one victim got a law with her name on it — Tokes, who was white.
That disparity in so-called namesake laws represents a national trend: White crime victims are much more likely to get crime bills named after them than black victims.
An Associated Press analysis found that more than eight in 10 stand-alone laws named for victims of violent crime since 1990 honored white victims or groups of victims that included at least one white person. Only 6 percent were named for black victims.
Namesake laws have been a popular way for lawmakers to simultaneously recognize victims of horrific crimes and enact tough-on-crime laws, and many have become common parlance in the national criminal justice discussion.
AMBER Alerts that warn the public to look out for a missing child are named for Amber Hagerman, a white 9-year-old from Texas who was killed after being abducted while riding her bike with her brother. Sex offender registries and notification systems were set up under federal and state laws named for 6-year-old Adam Walsh, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling and 7-year-old Megan Kanka, all white children abducted and killed by sex offenders.
Racial disparity in such laws has left black victims such as DeFreeze underrepresented. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, black young people in her age range — from 12 to 19 — experience violent crime at significantly higher rates than their white peers, including being five times more likely to be victims of homicide.
The Tokes and DeFreeze murders have led some Ohio lawmakers to question whether racial preference is at work in the naming of crime laws. The issue is back before lawmakers in at least three separate bills that are expected to see more debate this month.
DeFreeze’s mother, Donnesha Cooper, said it was devastating when a bill that would have created an “Alianna’s Alert” failed to pass last year.
She wanted a bill named for her daughter that would require schools to inform parents within an hour if a child without an excuse didn’t show up for class. The family and a pending wrongful death lawsuit allege that’s something her school, E Prep & Village Prep Woodland Hills, a Cleveland charter school, did not do in DeFreeze’s case. The school is contesting the suit’s allegations; its attorney declined comment.
Her daughter was abducted near a city bus stop while on her way to early morning tutoring. Cooper didn’t learn the teen was missing until 4 p.m., when she says it was too late to save her.
“It was hurtful, because I thought that the bill having her name on it would be a part of her legacy. … So that everybody would know that this bill was passed for the sake of future lives — and my daughter lost her life in the process, for a change to happen,” she said. “And they didn’t even put her name on it.”
Instead, language creating the alert was watered down and tucked quietly into an unrelated piece of legislation.
“Having a law named for a white victim versus an African American victim or a Hispanic victim does not inherently mean that people of all races don’t benefit from that legislation,” said Teresa Kulig, an assistant criminology professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “But it is kind of an important indication of who is highlighted in these laws.”
Kulig co-authored a 2016 report that found that 86% of 51 laws named for victims of murder, rape and other violent crimes from 1990 to 2016 were named for white victims. The AP analysis, which included laws from that study as well as bills enacted since 2016, found the pattern continued largely unchanged.
Exceptions included the Lavinia Masters Act, aimed at eliminating Texas’ rape kit backlog, and Tennessee’s JaJuan Latham Act, which toughened criminal penalties in drive-by shootings. Both laws were named for black victims and passed just this year.
Kulig said named laws generally spring from unspeakable tragedies — abductions, murders, domestic assaults, cases of child abuse — and studying racial disparities isn’t intended to diminish the pain of the mostly white families such laws honor.
Ohio Rep. Kristin Boggs, a Columbus Democrat who is white, sponsored the Reagan Tokes Act. She said the case exposed flaws in Ohio’s parole system that demanded a legislative response.
Tokes, a psychology major at Ohio State University, was kidnapped after leaving her restaurant job, raped and killed. Tokes’ killer had been released from prison two months earlier and was wearing an electronic monitor at the time.
While she acknowledged some implicit racial bias no doubt exists in the Ohio Legislature, Boggs said she doesn’t believe her colleagues are judging namesake bills based on victims’ ethnicity. The Tokes legislation, she said, was propelled by passionate lobbying by the family, which declined an AP request for comment through their attorney, and intense media attention to the case.
Opponents of namesake laws see an added twist: The new criminal penalties imposed by namesake bills named largely for whites fall disproportionately on blacks.
Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.
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