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Racism has always been a defining feature of the American criminal justice system, including racial profiling, disparities in arrests convictions and sentencing between minorities and whites, and in the use of the death penalty. Racial profiling against blacks, immigrants and minorities has always existed in the American criminal justice system, as has the belief that minorities in general and blacks in particular are always more likely to commit crimes. American society and its legal system were founded on white supremacy going back to the colonial period, and critical race criminology would always consider these historical factors as well as the legal means to counter them. From the 17th Century onward, Black Codes and slave patrols were used to control the black population, and keep them confined to farms and plantations. Blacks did not have the right to trial by jury or to testify against whites, and the law punished them with greater severity, particularly if they committed crimes against whites. This has not changed up to the present (Glover, 2009, p. 12). Even after the end of slavery, segregation and denial of black voting rights were considered 'legal' by state and local governments and upheld by Supreme Court decisions like Plessey v. Ferguson (1896). For the United States, "separate but equal" was the law of the land in many parts of the country until 1964, and while the separation by race was real equality certainly never existed (Glover, p. 14). Racial profiling is a new name for a very old practice in the United States, even though mainstream criminology rarely recognizes this fact.
Racism and the Death Penalty
Race as statistically significant in capital punishment: There were fifty-two executions in the United States in 2009 and forty-six in 2010, with over 3,000 people waiting on death row for their sentences to be carried out. In most cases these never will be because of lengthy appeals and delays in the courts so for most of those convicted the death penalty is actually a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Death row inmates are overwhelmingly male, from a lower class background, and on average over 40% have been black in 1977-2009, even though blacks were only 12-13% of the population (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2011). Not coincidentally, the U.S. has the highest prison population in the Western world, where the majority of inmates are blacks and Hispanics from impoverished backgrounds. Racism in criminal justice is hardly unusual in U.S. history, since blacks have always been more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated than whites, to be lynched, and to receive harsher sentences for the same crimes.
In Peculiar Institution: America's Death Penalty in an Age of Abolition, David Garland argued that the continuation of capital punishment as exceptional and peculiar because all Western nations abolished capital punishment by the 1960s and 1970s, and some much earlier than that. In Britain, for example, the last execution took place in 1964, while in France the guillotine has not been used since 1977 and capital punishment was abolished in 1981. Even in the former Communist nations of Eastern Europe, the death penalty was abolished by all of the new democratic governments in the 1990s. In the United States, however, no such abolition movement has ever really gained traction, despite the successful efforts of some 19th Century reformers in states like Maine and Michigan to end the death penalty. America came closest to abolition in the 1960s, with a moratorium on capital punishment in 1967 and the 1972 Supreme Court decision Furman v. Georgia, which declared it cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In addition, the Court also found it racially discriminatory in that the majority of people executed since 1930 had been black, even though blacks were only 10% of the population. Of the 3,859 persons executed in 1930-67, 54% had been black, as were 90% of the 455 men executed for rape. All 600 people sentenced to death in 1967-72 had their death sentences commuted as a result of this decision. Only two justices, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall, wrote that the death penalty was unconstitutional in all circumstances, however. In 1976, Woodson v. North Carolina and Roberts v. Louisiana and Gregg v. Georgia also overturned all mandatory death penalty laws and required "bifurcated" trials in which a jury decided on the sentence of death. Gary Gilmore was the first person executed under these new death penalty laws, by firing squad in Utah in 1977 (justice.uaa.alaska.edu).This disparity in punishment of blacks has always existed in the U.S. going back to colonial times, and this is still the case with capital punishment today (Garland 2010).
Garland finds that Europe had an easier time abolishing the death penalty in spite of public opposition because the political parties and bureaucracy were always more powerful there. In the United States, Republican politicians from Richard Nixon onward pandered to voters with the Southern Strategy, promising to appoint law-and-order judges who would enforce the death penalty. They also dramatically increased the incarceration rate until it was the highest in the Western world, and as usually the majority of people imprisoned today are black and Hispanic. Political exploitation and associations of capital punishment: Capital punishment was often an issue in elections from the 1960s onward, with conservative Republicans regularly denouncing liberal Democrats for being 'soft on crime'. In the 1988 elections, George H. Bush attacked Michael Dukakis for a parole program in Massachusetts that released a black inmate named Willie Horton, who went on to commit rape and murder (Marzilli, 2008, p. 13). In 1992, Bill Clinton made sure to order the execution of a prisoner in Arkansas to demonstrate that who was a law-and-order candidate who supported capital punishment, while George W. Bush bragged that he had never granted clemency or commuted a death sentence when he was governor of Texas.
Garland believes that capital punishment is a relic of the authoritarian past, in which brutal public spectacles of state-directed killing were used to awe, frighten and entertain the masses. Lynching served a similar function in the United States, and also to maintain a racist social order. Capital punishment still serves this purpose in many parts of the country, no matter the long delay between sentencing and punishment or the fact that innocent people are sometimes executed. Furthermore, the majority of white Americans seem to regard it as a form of revenge or retribution, and also as public entertainment. Supreme Court decisions in the last thirty years have placed certain limits on its, such as the abolition of capital punishment for rape and kidnapping and requiring juries to decide of the death penalty in a sentencing phase of the trial, although it still permits the execution of juveniles. Garland rightfully notes that the financial costs of the death penalty are much higher than simply sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. It also cuts off all possibility of repentance and rehabilitation of those condemned to death, and in general he regards it as "the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes" (Garland 2010).
Racism, Crime and Poverty in the United States
Racism has always been related to other social and economic problems, especially poverty, police brutality, social class and lack of economic and educational opportunities. From the early-1970s, poverty and inequality in wealth and incomes have also increased, and this affected blacks more than any other group. By 2000, 1% of the population had almost half of the wealth in the United States. Police abuse and violence in the segregated ghettos increased and was "disproportionately used against poor communities of color" (West, 1993, p. viii). Nearly 10% of young black men were in prison and 40% of black children lived in poverty, but this was hardly part of the national political agenda (West, p. 4). Blacks consumed about 12% of the drugs in the U.S. But were 70% of those convicted on drug charges (West, p. xii). They were also imprisoned all out of proportion to their actual numbers in the population.
In the United States over 75% of blacks still live in segregated neighborhoods that are often crowded, dangerous, lacking in social services, employment and educational opportunities. In fact, these segregated areas are racially profiled and redlined, not only by law enforcement but by banks, insurance companies and other businesses and government agencies. Police do not enforce civil rights and open housing laws in this country, nor do they protect blacks from violence and discrimination if they attempt to move into white areas. Segregation in residential and economic life "makes it difficult to solve other problems connected to poor communities, such as crime, violence, poor health, high mortality, and abandonment of houses," all of which have worsen greatly in the current recession (Ihewulezi, 2008, p. 47).
Blacks are 12% of the general population but over 40% of the prison population because of biased enforcement of the drug laws and the fact that…[continue]
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