Racial Discrimination in the Courts Term Paper

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A judge's discretion can mean the difference between a young African-American person going to jail and having his or her life irreparably damaged or being placed in a program that might have a chance to save a human being.

While judges cannot be caseworkers, they can look at the circumstances of a young offender's life to make rational and reasoned evaluations of someone's risk to society. This can be demonstrated though the example of a crack addicted mother who passes her habit to her infant. Instead of a mandatory sentence, this individual needs assistance to first overcome her addiction and educational and employment opportunities, so that she can support her child. In addition, mandatory minimum sentencing laws do not offer assistance in situations such as this. They unfairly punish African-American and Hispanic defendants as compared to whites who commit similar crimes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the examination of the disparate sentencing laws surrounding the possession or distribution of crack cocaine as compared to powder cocaine. For example, under the current sentencing mandates passed by Congress, an African-American young person convicted of trafficking in five grams of crack cocaine receives a five-year mandatory minimum penalty. An African-American young person selling the same amount of powder cocaine would be charged with a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum of one year. It would take possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same five-year mandatory sentence the defendant with 5 grams of crack receives. It has been argued countless times that this statutory 100 to 1 ratio of powder to crack has relegated a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic youth to long-term prison sentences that have stigmatized them for life.

In these instances, researchers have offered ideas that instead of dismantling educational opportunities for poor African-American communities, target more resources toward programs that work to rebuild affected neighborhoods. Currently, the federal government spends $15 billion each year on law enforcement, treatment and prevention programs in its war on drugs. For example, an anti-drug initiative could potentially call for a $200 million allocation for drug courts to treat low-level or first-time non-violent drug offenders, especially African-American youths. This assistance of young minorities through mentoring and educational programs at an early age is a critical component in crime prevention programs. Young African-American prisoners must be treated for their drug addictions. Given the overwhelming rise in the number of African-American young drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences and the number of these prisoners who will be released from prison, treating prisoners for their drug addiction is in society's best interest.

Hispanics in the Criminal Justice System

Similar to African-Americans, research indicates that Hispanics are overrepresented in the nation's criminal justice system. Statistics reveal that Hispanic defendants are imprisoned at a rate of three times as often and detained before trial for first-time offenses almost twice as often as whites, despite being the least likely of all ethnic groups to have a criminal history. In the year 2000, Hispanics represented 13% of the U.S. population, but accounted for 31% of those incarcerated in the federal criminal justice system. Researchers at Michigan State (2007) found that Hispanics have one chance in six of being confined in prison during their lifetimes. Research studies conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau confirm the criminal justice system's discriminatory practices against Hispanics, the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority population. The Bureau of Justice Statistics attributes these discriminatory practices against Hispanics as a result of policy initiatives, including the mandatory minimum sentencing laws that also affect African-Americans. The war on drugs and the war on crime have also caused incarceration rates for low-level drug offenses and immigration violations to skyrocket (Michigan State, 2007).

However, unlike African-Americans, Hispanic offenders in the criminal justice system experience additional problems, such as the lack of bilingual and culturally competent personnel in law enforcement and court proceedings, which thus leads to higher arrest and incarceration rates for Hispanics. In addition, disproportionate sentencing of Hispanics has been attributable to damaging media portrayals that create negative public perceptions and prejudices of Hispanics in general (Michigan State, 2007). Other racial discrimination issues include discrimination during arrest, prosecution and sentencing, and the fact that Hispanics are more likely to be incarcerated than whites charged with the same offenses. Problems at the arrest stage include racial profiling and targeting poorer, "high crime" neighborhoods, which impacts people of color (Michigan State, 2007). Michigan State (2007) also reports that Hispanics are disproportionately represented by publicly appointed legal counsel, who are often overworked and underpaid. For example, of those Hispanic defendants found guilty in large state courts from 1994 to 1998, 71% represented by public counsel were sentenced to incarceration, as compared to 54% of defendants with private attorneys.

Finally, Hispanics are disproportionately charged with nonviolent, low-level drug offenses. Although federal health statistics show that per capita drug use rates between whites and minorities are remarkably similar, Hispanics were arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2001 at a rate nearly three times their proportion in the general population, and they accounted for nearly half (43%) of the individuals convicted of drug offenses in 2000 (Michigan State, 2007). Unlike other minority groups and the white population, Hispanics constitute the vast majority of those arrested for immigration violations. Arrests for immigration offenses increased 610% over 10 years - from 1,728 in 1990 to 12,266 in 2000 (Michigan State, 2007). Research indicates that even offenses considered misdemeanors under state law, such as shoplifting or fighting at school can lead to deportation measures. Therefore, while African-Americans suffer judicial discrimination as a result of the mandatory sentencing guidelines, Hispanics suffer in other ways, such as deportation and translation issues.

Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection

Racial discrimination in the selection of juries in deciding criminal cases involving minorities has also been written about as an additional factor of judicial discrimination experienced by minorities. The use of peremptory challenges in the process of jury selection may keep minorities off juries. In addressing the detrimental effects of racial discrimination in jury selection, the Supreme Court has stated that the harm from discriminatory jury selection extends beyond that inflicted on the defendant by undermining public confidence in the fairness of the justice system. In an attempt to combat this problem, the Supreme Court has made a concerted effort to eliminate racial bias in the jury selection process (Mattie, 2004). However, this has failed as a result of the ineffectiveness of legal standards and ethical rules seeking to address this problem, such as the failure to discipline lawyers for discriminatory behavior. In the Supreme Court case Miller-El v. Cockrell, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of racial bias in jury selection through the discriminatory use of peremptory strikes. In this case, the Supreme Court held that the credibility of a lawyer accused of racial discrimination needed to be specifically scrutinized during that process.

In another similar case, Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court established a three-step process for assessing whether or not a lawyer's use of a peremptory strike was racially motivated. Cases that followed Batson v. Kentucky criticized the test, stating that the test to determine racial motivation was unworkable. In Batson, the Court held that the defendant must only provide evidence that the prosecutor was racially biased during jury selection in the defendant's particular case, rather than demonstrate a pattern of discrimination in prior cases. The Court also created a three-step process for the trial court to follow in evaluating a defendant's claim that a prosecutor was racially biased (Mattie, 2004). The first step required that the defendant establish a prima facie case of purposeful discrimination by demonstrating that certain racial or ethnic groups were excluded from the jury (Mattie, 2004). The second step shifted the burden of proof to the prosecutor, who must proffer race-neutral explanations for challenging the jurors he allegedly excused on the basis of race (Mattie, 2004). The third step involves a trial court examination of whether or not the defendant has established purposeful discrimination through an evaluation of the prosecutor's reasons (Mattie, 2004).

In Hernandez v. New York, another case that followed Baton, the prosecutor removed four potential jurors who were Latino because the prosecutor allegedly had concerns about whether or not those jurors would "have difficulty accepting the translator's rendition of Spanish-language testimony (Mattie, 2004)." The Court accepted this explanation, regardless of the negative impact on Latinos. The Court placed the weight on the believability of the prosecutor's explanation for striking Latino jurors, stating that the trial court should be given great deference in this determination because demeanor and credibility assessments can best be made by the trial judge who witnessed the jury selection process. In the Miller-El case, the defendant offered many forms of evidence to establish an inference of purposeful discrimination and substantiate his claim, including statistical evidence…[continue]

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