Race and Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System
Racial inequality has long been an issue in the American society. Despite making substantial progress in creating a more racially equal society, there are still many issues involving race and discrimination that can be found today. The criminal justice system was designed to treat all individuals equally under the law. However, covert racism and discrimination still plague the system and many minorities are adversely impacted and are not treated equally under the law. While most judges and public officials profess a strong dedication to remaining racially impartial, the evidence suggests otherwise. This literature review will focus on various points that indicate that there is a substantial amount of inequality to found within the criminal justice system in our modern society.
Racial differences in the criminal justice system have been important topics since the inception of the modern criminal justice system. However, whether or not there are meaningful racial disparities in the criminal justice system has been given increased attention by various disciplines in the social sciences since the 1960s (Crutchfield, Fernandes, & Martinez, 2010). Many have studied the overall trends regarding this topic from the early American antebellum period to modern sentencing practices and imprisonment statistics.
A number of empirical studies concerned with ethic differences in the adult criminal justice system argue that evidence for obvious discrimination or racial and ethnic bias has not been established based on the statistics on arrests, pretrial processing procedures, trials, and sentencing decisions (Crutchfield, Fernandes, & Martinez, 2010). Much of the disparity among race is attributed to high crime areas that are primarily populated by minority populations (Gross, 1997). In urban areas with high rates of minority populations as well as high crime rates can explain at least a portion of the inequality in the unequal prison populations.
However, many alternative theories also exist. Some research offers alternative explanations of racial incarceration disparity present in the U.S. society. Marxist or economic theories of racial incarceration disparity propose that the real bias in incarceration is not race, but economic class (Yates, 1997). Such research indicates that because of historical disadvantages, blacks are disproportionately represented in the underprivileged class. Furthermore, economic elites use the criminal justice system to control the "problem" segment of society as blacks are urban poverty-stricken and unemployed. Therefore, blacks are disproportionately incarcerated not because of the racial bias but because of their lack of resources and their low socioeconomic status. Racial-discrimination theories hold that racial incarceration disparity is caused by the discriminatory actions of racially biased actors in the criminal justice system. Generally, discrimination theories assert that whites perceive blacks as a social threat, have negative attitudes toward them, and, consequently, engage in discriminatory actions against them.
However, the problem cannot be isolated to economic explanations alone. On July 16th, 2009, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Of Harvard University returned to his home after a trip in Africa only to find that he had misplaced the key to his home in Cambridge, MA (Staples, 2009). Dr. Gates is a successful professor at a prestigious university who is also a African-American. When Dr. Gates realized that he could not open the front door to his house he asked his limousine driver, who happened to be Africa American as well, to help him with the door. Some neighbors assumed that the two black men were attempting to break into the Dr. Gates residence based on their racial profiles and called the police. The police subsequently arrested Dr. Gates for challenging his authority because they did not respect the professor's claims that he was the owner of the house that it appeared he was trying to break into. What happened to Dr. Gates is indicative that there is more to race and inequality that simply along economic divisions.
Still other theories try to determine exactly where the bias in the criminal legal system arises. There has been recent controversy surrounding racial profiling in America that has focused renewed attention on the larger issue of racial bias by the police (Weitzer & Tuch, 2005). However, the extent of police racial bias is unclear and much less the public perceptions of the problem. One study analyzes recent national survey data on citizens' views of and reported personal experiences with, several forms of police bias -- including differential treatment of individuals and neighborhoods, police prejudice, and racial profiling and found that attitudes toward the prevalence and acceptability of these practices are largely shaped by citizens race, personal experiences with police discrimination, and exposure to news media reporting on incidents of police misconduct (Weitzer & Tuch, 2005). The findings lend support to the group-position theory of race relations.
Punishment is used for a range of different ends that vary with many different types of situations. Sometimes it is used to try to control certain behaviors, even when the individual might not even be cognizant of the rules. For example, children or animals are commonly punished for violating rules even though they probably don't understand them. In this case the idea is to associate the punishment with the unwanted behavior so that the individual will be less likely reproduces the same types of behavior in the future. Theories of justice are intended to provide some rational justification for the punishment. These categories of justifications can include philosophical, political, legislative, eligibility, sentencing, or administrative penalties. Furthermore, much of the legal system is focused on retributive justice, which is commonly thought of as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth motive for punishment. The new wave of theories seems to try to balance empirical consideration and ideology (Davis, 2009).
The use of incarceration as a punishment is not always effective in terms of preventing unwanted behaviors. Many theorists believe that incarceration should only be to those who have no potential to be rehabilitated and therefore need to be separated from society. However, in the United States there are more people incarcerated than in any other country in the world; by both total prison population as well as the percentage of the population in prison compared to the total population. Furthermore, the prison population disproportionately consists of minorities and low income citizens. This is problematic for a system built upon equality under the law.
The judicial system gives substantial freedom to judges to use their discretion in sentencing criminals. Not every crime in a legal category is sentenced in the exact same way. Age is one factor that is generally considered; especially with younger and juvenile offenders. If a crime that is committed by a younger individual then it is more likely for the court to grant the individual some leniency because this individual most likely has a better chance at rehabilitation. Therefore an argument can be made that discrimination based on age is a justifiable position to take and the judge may either consciously or unconsciously offer more leniency to this type of violator. However, it is more difficult to produce a similar argument based on race.
By giving judges more power in the courtroom this can also lead to their discretion in sentencing offenders producing discrimination against certain groups based on race or economic status. Research has suggested for many years that minority groups, age, and gender can be the basis of bias among judgments (Green, 1991). In response to this there have been the creation of and the narrowing of minimum and maximum sentences that can narrow the range of possible sentences to attempt to make the system more equal for all criminals. Even despite such efforts the statistics prove that prison population is disproportionately populated with minorities and low income members of the society.
The situation that leads to the discrimination and prosecution of a larger percentage…