Racial Disparities in the U.S. Judicial System

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5 April 2016

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The United States has the largest documented incarceration rate in the world. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics at yearend 2012, approximately 6,937,600 offenders were under the supervision of adult correctional systems (2013). Of this number, more than 60% of the inmates in prison are minorities however; they make up only 37% of the United States population. Considering the trends in which minorities commit crimes, such broad statistics conceal that racial disparities pervade each stage of the U.S. judicial system, from arrest to trial and sentencing.

The first stage of the judicial system is the arrest made by an officer. Police are given an incredible amount of discretion to use that leads to bias and racial profiling. According to Paul Bou-Habib in his article “Racial Profiling and Background Injustice”, he states, “The main reason in favor of using racial profiling in the context of criminal investigation is that I can increase the chance of catching criminals” (para. 2). A key factor in the imbalance of the arrests on minorities in comparison to whites is that they commit more crimes at higher rates. In the article, “The Correlates of Law Enforcement Officers’ Automatic and Controlled-Race Based Responses to Criminal Suspects” by B. Michelle Peruche & E. Ashby Plant (2006) suggests that:

Such responses may be influenced by stereotypic expectations. For example, it is possible that Black men are more likely to be violent and hostile may create expectations that Black people, particularly Black men, are more likely to be violent criminals than White people. (para. 1) Violent crimes consist of murder, rape and sexual assault, robbery, and assault. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Crime in The United States shows “In 2011, 69.2 percent of all individuals arrested for violent crimes were white, 28.4 percent were black, and 2.4 percent were of other races” (2011). So how can one assume that minorities are more violent than whites are, they are obviously committing acts that are more violent. There are more minority inmates in prison with drug offenses not because they commit more offenses that are violent.

Hispanics in comparison to African Americans are also subjected to common misconceptions and stereotypes linked to them. Such as the false link between immigrants and crime. Considering that law enforcement officers must frequently make quick judgments about suspects and the nature of the crime committed, subconscious racial stereotypes can influence the way they perform their jobs. For many, the concern is that police officers are more likely to focus on minority group members, particularly Black and Latino people in their investigations, leading them to target minority group members when making decisions about behaviors such as traffic stops, searches, and questioning (Peruche & Plant, 2006, para. 1).

From what statistics show, “Black drivers (12.3%) were three times as likely as white drivers (3.9%) and about two times as likely as Hispanic drivers (5.8%) to be searched during a traffic stop in 2008” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008). Furthermore, white drivers were both ticketed and searched at lower rates than black and Hispanic drivers. A widely known publicized example of racial profiling is the stop-and-frisk program utilized by the New York Police Department. Opponents of stop-and-frisk argue that, it not only targets blacks and Hispanic males, but it also criminalizes them, as well (NYCLU, 2013). In 2013, statistics showed that “New Yorkers were stopped by the police 191,558 times. 169,252 were totally innocent (88 percent). 104,958 were black (56 percent). 55,191 were Latino (29 percent). 20,877 were white (11 percent)” (NYCLU, 2013).

Another side of this issue is some people have negative views about inner cities in which a vast majority of minorities lives. Studies indicate that the higher crimes committed by minorities have nothing to do with race but instead their socioeconomic status. “The relationship between crime and communities has long been a focal point of criminological and sociological investigation” (Bogges & Hipp, 2010, para. 1). Disadvantages and poverty-stricken neighborhoods account for the higher rates of crimes committed by minorities, especially African-Americans and Hispanics. Race and socioeconomic status are key factors that play a vital role in the crime-ridden areas of the inner cities creating a playground for law enforcement officials to target minorities.

The social conditions in which people who live in the inner cities withstand are harsh. The deindustrialization of the 1970’s damaged the inner cities the most. Minorities lost many of the minimum wage manufacturing jobs forcing them to bury themselves deeper into the life of poverty. According to Eloise Dunlap & Bruce D. Johnson (1992) in the article “The Setting for the Crack Era: Macro Forces, Micro Consequences (1960-1992)” the deterioration of the manufacturing industry in America that relied on inexperienced and uneducated workers spawned a crisis that directly affected minority households creating a rise in distributing and using of narcotics (para. 27 ). With little to no education or job experience what were they suppose to do? Desperate times calls for desperate measures.

Therefore, the loss of valid employment with a company led many of those living in the inner cities to find other means of making ends meet by selling drugs amongst other crimes. In return, this led to many arrests in poverty-stricken neighborhoods because “drug arrests are easier to accomplish in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods than in stable middle-class neighborhoods, so the insistence of politicians on more arrests results in vastly more arrests of poor, inner-city blacks and Hispanics” (Welch & Angulo 2002, pg. 15, para. 4). If there had been an appropriate policy maker response where the War on Drugs actually curtailed drug abuse and created alternative options for inner cities across America such as education, decent jobs, and connections to opportunity networks would and can still become the norm for poor inner city minorities rather than just an exception.

In 1971, President Nixon declared a war on drugs classifying drug abuse as an epidemic in the United States. Without a doubt, the War on Drugs increased the violence in inner cities better known today as a war in the communities of color. According to Deborah Small (2001) in her article “The War On Drugs Is A War on Racial Justice” that the “war on drugs” is another way for the white man to continuously break up the homes and sabotage the communities of African Americans and Hispanics creating a form of modern day slavery and the slaves being the prisoners (para. 1). Whites have been able to hide their criminal behavior of abusing and distributing narcotics in the privacy of their nice suburban homes while minorities who live in the slums of the inner city operate open-air drug trades, which are easier to catch. Sklar (as cited in Smalls, 2002) states, “the typical cocaine user is white, male, a high school graduate employed full time and living in a small metropolitan area or suburb” (para. 2).

Statistics have shown that whites use more drugs than minorities however the prison system has more people of color incarcerated on drug offenses. For example based on statistics, “between 1970 and 1984white inmates accounted for more than 60% entering state and federal prisons while African Americans made up 40% however by the year 1991 these percentages changed drastically with African Americans making up 54% of prison admissions versus 42% for whites”(Welch and Angulo, 2002, pg. 14, para. 2). It is quite evident why the American judicial system is referred to as a slave trade. Also as you can see that “between 1985 and 1995 white drug offenders in state prison increased by 300% while black drug offenders increased by 700% meaning there are more than 50% black drug offenders in state prisons than white drug offenders” (Welch and Angulo, 2002, pg. 14, para. 3). Data also demonstrates that “Blacks constitute 13 percent of all drug users, but 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession, 55 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of those sent to prison” (Human Rights Watch, 2000). The United States government and judicial system is failing the minority communities.

To further, display the destruction of the racially powered policy of the war on drugs and the United States judicial system women of color are not spared. The number of women in prison has skyrocketed at rates nearly doubling of men inmates. Women of color are disproportionately affected and are incarcerated at a rate seven times more than white women. Welch & Angulo (2002) mention “The 417% increase in their incarceration rates between 1980 and 1995 is greater even than the increase for black men. Three-fourths of the women in prison in 1991 were mothers, and two-thirds had children under 18” (pg. 21, para. 6). However, according to Dorothy S. McClellan (2002) in her article “Coming to the aid of women in U.S. prison” stated: Currently over 95,000 women are incarcerated in U.S. prisons, another 70,000 in our jails.

The women’s prison population in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1980, largely a result of a war on drugs that has translated into a war on women and the poor generally. African-American women have been hardest hit by this increase. They are 14.5 percent of the women in the U.S. population, but they constitute 52.2 percent of the women in prison. (para. 12). Looking at the statistics of how many African American women and men are incarcerated in American prisons versus the percentage of what they make up of the general population is astonishing. Does this not show thus far that racial disparities permeate the United States judicial system?

Once minorities enter the system through arrest, they continue to face racial bias at each stage of prosecution. More blacks and Hispanic defendants are more likely to depend on the indigent defense system. The median income for blacks and Hispanics is roughly $20,000 less than that of white’s median income (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Between 2009 and 2010 the poverty rate increased for non-hispanic whites (from 9.4 percent to 9.9 percent), for blacks (from 25.8 percent to 27.4 percent), and Hispanics (from 25.3 percent to 26.6 percent) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).

However, the crippling state of the indigent defense in the United States it is greatly affecting minority defendants. State-based public defender programs reported receiving a median of 82 felony (non-capital) cases, 217 misdemeanor cases and two appeal cases per full-time equivalent litigating attorney (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007, pg. 2, para. 5).These numbers do not get any better for public defenders operating in counties. County-based public defender officers reported receiving an average of 100 felony (non-capital) cases and 146 misdemeanor cases per full-time equivalent litigating attorney (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2007, pg. 2, para. 5).

The overburdening workload of public defenders opens a window of opportunity for racial bias to influence their decision-making skills. Implicit racial bias facilitates our ability to “manage information overload and make decisions more efficiently and easily” by “filtering information, filling in missing data, and automatically categorizing people according to cultural stereotypes” (Richardson & Goff, 2013, pg. 4, para. 2). The subconscious stereotypes associated between race and crime help public defenders make their decisions about cases. For example, if a public defender has handled a massive caseload where disparate amounts of Hispanics were incarcerated on drug offenses it would lead one to assume that all Hispanics are guilty of this.

As Richardson & Goff (2013) further explain “Despite the existence of dedicated and committed PDs, the lack of adequate resources couple with unmanageable caseloads make it virtually impossible to provide zealous and effective representation to every client” (pg. 6&7, para. 3). The constraints on public defenders often force indigent defendants to plea bargain rather than going to trial to be found guilty to avoid longer sentences even if they are completely innocent or have a good defense. Plea bargaining was designed to aid the courts with a large volume of caseloads that far exceed trial capabilities. Plea bargains function as a funnel to direct the poor and uneducated people into prison. This is not equal and fair justice it is modern day slavery.

In addition, sentencing of minorities in the U.S. judicial system continues to show that racism operates within. Due to harsh new sentencing guidelines, such as the ‘three-strikes, you’re out,’ law a disproportionate number of minority inmates particularly African American and Hispanic men are likely to be imprisoned for life for non-violent drug offenses. If a defendant convicted of any felony charge with two prior strikes, the law mandated a prison term of 25 years to life. Welch & Angulo (2002) stated, “in the first two years after enactment of California’s “three strikes, you’re out” law, more life sentences had been imposed under that law for marijuana users than for murders, rapists, and kidnappers combined” (pg. 15, para. 6).

However, thanks to the War on Drugs federal sentencing laws between crack and cocaine account for the disproportionate number of blacks in prison. According to the Sentencing Project (2004) “81.4% of crack cocaine defendants in 2002 were African American, white about two-thirds of crack cocaine users in general population are white” (pg. 2). Could this be because it is easier for law enforcement officials to target the open-air drug trades? African Americans now serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (57.2 months) as whites do for a violent offense (58.8 months) (Sentencing Project, 2004, pg. 2).

Of course, there are going to be more minorities in prison facing drug charges because they are racially profiled, stopped/pulled over, and searched at higher rates than other races. In conclusion, the racial disparities that pervade each stage the U.S. judicial system is one manifestation of a more extensive racial separation in this country. The 1600’s prejudice slave mentally contributes to the unjust practices in and out of the criminal justice system. It is time that we support reforms that end the war on drugs and fight to repair a broken justice system. However, continuing to search for bigotry in the system diverts attention away from the crucial need to help more inner city minorities get an education, stay out of trouble, and learn critical life skills.

Boggess, L. N., & Hipp, J. R. (2010). Violent crime, residential instability and mobility: Does the relationship differ in minority neighborhoods? Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 26(3), 351-370. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10940-010-9093-7. Retrieved from the ProQuest database. Bou-Habib, P. (2011). Racial profiling and background injustice. Journal Of Ethics, 15(1/2), 33-46. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2007). Census of Public Defender Offices, 2007. Retrieved from: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pdo07st.pdf Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2013, December 19th). Correctional Populations In The United States, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4843 Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2008). Traffic Stops. Retrieved from: http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=702 Dunlap E, Johnson BD. The setting for the Crack Era: Macro forces, micro consequences (1960-1992) Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 1992;24(4):307–21. Retrieved from: http:// http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2761228/ Human Rights Watch. “Drugs and Human Rights. Who Goes to Prison for Drug Offenses: A Rebuttal to the New York State District Attorneys Association.” World Report 1999. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999 Retrieved from: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/drugs/ny-drugs.htm McClellan, D. S. (2002). Coming to the aid of women in U.S. prisons. Monthly Review, 54(2), 33-44. Retrieved from the ProQuest database. NYCLU. (2013, August 12). Stop and Frisk Data. Retrieved March 5th, 2014, from New York Civil Liberties Union: http://www.nyclu.org/content/stop-and-frisk-data NYCLU. (2013, August 12). Stop and Frisk Facts. Retrieved March 5th, 2014, from New York Civil Liberties Union: http://www.nyclu.org/node/1598 Peruche, B., & Plant, E.
(2006). The Correlates of Law Enforcement Officers’ Automatic and Controlled Race-Based Responses to Criminal Suspects. Basic & Applied Social Psychology, 28(2), 193-199. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp2802_9. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database. Richardson, L., & Goff, P. (2013). Implicit Racial Bias in Public Defender Triage. Yale Law Journal, 122(8), 2626-2649. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database. Small, D. (2001). The War on Drugs Is a War on Racial Justice. Social Research, 68(3), 896-903. Retrieved from the EBSCOhost database. The Sentencing Project. (2004). The Federal Prison Population: A Statistical Analysis. Retrieved from: http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_federalprisonpop.pdf Welch, R., & Angulo, C. (2002). Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System. In D. Piche, W. Taylor, & R. Reed, Rights at Risk: Equality in an Age of Terrorism (pp. 185-218). Washington D.C,: Citizens Commission on Civil Rights.

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"Racial Disparities in the U.S. Judicial System" StudyScroll, 5-Apr-2016. [Online]. Available: https://studyscroll.com/racial-disparities-in-the-u-s-judicial-system-essay. [Accessed: 26-Sep-2023]

StudyScroll. (2016). Racial Disparities in the U.S. Judicial System. [Online]. Available at: https://studyscroll.com/racial-disparities-in-the-u-s-judicial-system-essay [Accessed: 26-Sep-2023]

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