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Racism in the Criminal Justice System


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The United States of America’s national anthem the “Star Spangled Banner” and the “Pledge of Allegiance” state that the United States is “land of the free” with “liberty and justice for all.” Yet, the United States houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates even though it only houses five percent of the world’s population (Martensen, 2012). Additionally the fundamental concept of the United States Criminal Justice System is that an individual is “innocent” until proven guilty. This makes one question whether, people in the United States are really held to this standard, or are certain people more prone to crime in the land of opportunity and freedom? Our society is built around the societal norms of the dominant white group and racial and ethnic inequalities are intertwined in every aspect of our society causing minority groups to struggle against a society built around white privilege.
Minorities in comparison to their population in the United States are incriminated at a higher rate than Whites. Spohn (2000) stated that “a majority of the studies reviewed…found that African Americans and Hispanics were more likely than Whites to be sentenced to prison, even after taking crime seriousness and prior criminal records into account” (as cited in Hartney & Vuong, 2009, p.10). In 2010, racially the United States population identified as being comprised of 196.8 million Whites who identified as White alone (69.1%), 38.9 million Blacks or African Americans (12.6%), and 50.5 million Hispanics (16.3%) (2010 Census Brief, 2011). However, Of those federally sentences in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 36.7 % or 68,180 were Black, 32.5% or 60,268 were Hispanic and only 27.5% or 51,091 were white (Motivans, 2013). As seen by these numbers, African Americans were 7.7 times more likely, and Hispanics were 5.2 times more likely, than whites to be federally sentenced in relation to their population in the United States. Disparities among the type of offense a suspect is arrested for vary among races and ethnicities as well. Of those suspects arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2010, 49.1% were Hispanic, 23.2% were Black and 25.3% were White (Motivans, 2013). Hispanics were the group most arrested for cocaine powder, marijuana, methamphetamine and opiates drug related offences, whereas African Americans were the group most arrested for crack cocaine, and Whites were most arrested for other or nondrug related offenses including “pharmaceutical controlled substances, equipment used to manufacture controlled substances and drug use paraphernalia” (Motivans, 2013, p. 9). Additionally, Hartney and Vuong (2006) noted that African Americans were 3.4 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for violent crimes, 6.8 times as likely to be arrested for murder/non-negligent manslaughter, 2.6 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for property crime, 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for drugs, and 1.4 times more likely to the arrested for public order crimes.
Disparities are also seen in sentencing lengths and sentence type among different races. Overall, African Americans were sentenced to serve five months longer than Whites in prison and 13 months longer for violent offenses1 (Hartney & Vuong, 2009). Among those sentences to the death penalty, African Americans were on dead row five times the rate for Whites1 (Hartney & Vuong, 2009). In relation to post-conviction federal supervision in 2010, overall Whites were granted release from jail and prison significantly more than Hispanics, 37.0% to 21.3%; and African Americans were granted release slightly less than whites at 36.3%. However, the type of release that is frequent varies among races. White were the group most likely to received probation in lieu of incarceration – 48.6% of Whites, 26.1% of African Americans and 17.1% of Hispanics. African Americans were granted parole during their sentence at the highest percent – 61.0% of African Americans, 27.4% of Whites and 9.2% of Hispanics. African Americans are also more likely to be sentenced to supervised release in addition to their sentence – 38.1% of African Americans, 34.6% of Whites and 22.3% of Hispanics. Discrepancies in data can be seen as Hispanics are often included in the White population and not included as a group on their own in statistics. Hartney and Vuong (2009) stated that “failing to separate ethnicity from race hides the true disparity among races, as Hispanics – a going proportion of the system’s population – are often combined with Whites, which has the effect of inflating White rates and deflating African American rates in comparison” (p. 2). Also, Hispanics sometimes identify as “White” rather than Hispanic which also effect statistical data.
The majority group in a society influences the societal norms form the entire population. Whites in the United States are the majority group and have a prominent effect on legislature, the media and stereotypes. Through media and legislature these stereotypes are imbedded in every aspect of our society including the school system, employment opportunities, inequality in pay, inequalities in community and residential resources, racial profiling and the feeling of the need to lock up certain groups of people as a means to the war on crime. Garland as cited in Martensen (2012) noted that this type of mentality leads to a normalization of imprisonment of minority groups which in turn makes incarceration a “regular, predictable part of [the] experience, rather than a rare and infrequent event” (p. 212).
Statistical data shows that the educational level of an individual is correlated to the rate of incarceration. However, even sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education made racial segregation in schools unconstitutional, segregation still exists today and inequality in education exists in society. The American Civil Liberties Union (2007) noted that “in 31 of 49 states, school districts with highest minority enrollment received fewer resources than school districts with the lowest minority enrollment” (as cited in Harvey & Allard, 2012, p. 76). In many states, the public school a child is enrolled in is based on the child’s home address causing those from a low socioeconomics class to continuously be segregated in schools with others from a low socioeconomic class, in schools that receive fewer resources. Additionally, Hood (2012) stated that “African American students [are] disproportionally assigned to lower ability tracks” and the “results were that they were taught less, learn less, and read less” (p. 77). Federal Justice statistics showed that those who have not graduated from high school were incarcerated at a rate of 50.8 percent, and with increased education this rate goes down to 5.4 percent for those who have a earned a college degree (Motivans, 2013). As seen by these numbers an increased level of education reduces the incarceration rate, however, as there are inequality in education between racial and ethnic groups incarceration rates may be increasing as a result in certain minority groups. Additionally, an education increases employment opportunity, a person’s salary level and their chances of moving to a better neighborhood, which all decrease an individual’s chances of incarceration.
An individual’s employment status or lack thereof, may cause an increase in the individual’s likelihood of imprisonment and may produce harsher sentencing especially when a person is from a minority group. The Sentencing Project (2005) stated that unemployed African Americans were “5.2 times more likely to be incarcerated then employed whites and that “tend to be sentenced more severely than comparably situated white males” (The Sentencing Project, 2005, p. 7). Labor statistics from the first quarter of 2014 showed that the unemployment rate for African Americans was twice the rate of unemployment for Whites at 12.3 percent; likewise, the unemployment rate for Hispanics was 1.4 times the white unemployment rate at 8.6 percent (E-16. Unemployment rates by age, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, 2014). Furthermore, racial inequalities exist in salaries. Median weekly earning of Hispanics were $593 per week or 72.4 percent of the median salary for Whites ($819); likewise the median weekly earning for African Americans was $646 (Usual weekly earnings of wage and salary workers, 2014). Having a larger income can increase an individual’s odds of receiving a less severe sentence or possible escaping incarceration as “Whites are more likely to hire a private attorney than Latinos or Blacks” (The Sentencing Project, 2005, p. 9).
An individual’s location of residency may contribute to an individual’s incarceration rate as an individual’s address of residency determines their school district and community resources available which in turn affects employment and an individual’s social economic class. Also, the state you live in might increase your likelihood of imprisonment. African Americans in general had a higher new admission rate to prison than Whites in all states, however, states with the highest new admission rate were New York at 10.5, Pennsylvania at 10.7, Minnesota at 12.5, New Jersey at 13.8, and Wisconsin at 16.7 rate indices of Whites (Hartney & Vuong, 2009). In comparison, Hispanics had higher new admission rates than Whites in only 16 states with indices ranging in these states from 1.1 to 8.2 (Hartney & Vuong, 2009).
Other possible causes of the increase rate of minority imprisonment are racial profiling, societal biases and prejudices, and even the race of the victim. The probability of African American drivers actual committing a crime is 10 percent, yet they are pulled over 90 percent of the time by police officers and not arrested (Harvey & Allard, 2012). Furthermore, young Black and Latino males tend to be perceived as being “particularly dangerous and problematic” (The Sentencing Project, 2005, p. 8). Judges, whose decisions make a great impact on that individual’s life and future, were noted for using judgment that was based on a “‘perceptual shorthand’ that are informed by stereotypes about race, age, and gender” (The Sentencing Project, 2005, p. 8). Additionally, the Sentencing Project noted the victim’s race contributed to the severity of the sentencing of African Americans. African Americans who victimized Whites had a more severe sentence then if they victimized an African American (The Sentencing Project, 2005). Furthermore, a defendant has a greater chance of being sentenced to death if the victim is White. The same bias thought processes is imbedded in our society causing inequality in education, salaries, employment opportunities, segregations in societies, which in turn contribute to the inequalities in the Criminal Justice System.
Incarceration has a great impact on the individual, the individual’s family and their community regardless what race or ethnicity an inmate is. However, as the racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to enter the criminal justice system, the effects are more profound on that group. When an individual is convicted of a crime they are often removed from their regular life style abruptly, disrupting their relationship status, their employment status and income, their future housing situation and continuity in healthcare treatments. A criminal record often puts a stain on an individual’s societal image, often affecting future employment opportunities. This effect is greater on minorities due to preexisting societal biases already disadvantaging minorities. Harvey and Allard (2013) stated that “White males with a criminal record had a slightly better chance of getting a job than an African American male with no criminal record” (p. 74). With difficulties for an ex-inmate obtaining employment their income and socioeconomic status is decreased than prior to prison, and causing them often to not return to the neighborhoods of origin. This effect is greater among Whites than on minority groups as Whites tend to live in better neighborhoods prior to prison than minorities, and are often not welcomed back to the neighborhood of origin (Massoglia, Firebaugh, & Warner, 2013). Massoglia et al. (2013) noted that only one out of five incarcerated individuals return back to their neighborhood or origin prior to prison, concluding that incarceration had a negative effect on neighborhood attainment.
In regards to health care, studies suggest that individuals from minority groups received lower quality of care than Whites even when they had the same income and insurance (Harvey & Allard, 2012). Being incarcerated further decreases the healthcare outcome for the individual as the fluidity in the transfer of medical, pharmaceutical and laboratory records is poorer in the criminal justice system than the already problematic system in society, and this is exuberated further as the individual’s transition in the criminal justice system usually consists of four phases leading to possible errors in care: “(1) entry into the correction system, (2) during custody, (3) in the transition from prison to the community, and (4) during the subsequent community supervision, such as parole and probation” (Binswanger, Redmond, Steiner, & Hicks, 2012, p. 101). Furthermore, federal policies “prohibit correctional institutions from receiving federal Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement for health services provided to prisoners” and incarcerated individual cannot be covered by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act insurance exchange, which can affect the health outcome of these individual even further due to decrease availability of healthcare (Binswanger et al., 2012, p. 104; Hood, 2014).
An individual’s incarceration greatly affects the health status of the individual’s family and community as well. As relationships are broken in the process of incarceration, community members may not wait for the release of the inmate and may find new sexual partners, and inmates may have multiple new partners as well, leading to the increase risk of spread of HIV and other sexual transmitted diseases (STDs) in the community (Binswanger et al., 2012). Additionally, the incarceration of a parent is correlated with increase rates of STDs and pregnancy among teenagers, and with 6.7 percent of African American under the age of 18 having a parent incarceration in comparison only 2 percent of children in the whole United States population shows that this effect may be greater among minority groups (Binswanger et al., 2012). Furthermore, the incarceration of a family member puts a woman in greater risk of cardiovascular disease and a decreased physical health as women are five times more likely men to have a family member incarcerated than be incarcerated themselves (Lee, Wildeman, Wang, Matusko, & Jackson, 2014). This leads to increased stress on the female due to a lowered socioeconomic status, family disruption, increased family role obligations, and reduce financial and social support, which in turn causes higher odds of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart attack and stroke (Lee et al., 2014).
Parental incarceration also has a negative effect on their children due to the maladjustment of the family relationship even after the parent returns. Murray and Farrington stated that parental incarceration is a “strong risk factor (and even cause) for a range of adverse outcomes for children, including antisocial behavior, offending, mental health problems, drug abuse, school failure, and unemployment” ( as cited in Swisher & Roettger, 2012, p. 597). Aaron and Dallaire (2010) stated that these issues exist even after the parent is released from prison. Children are affected by family victimization, such as being bullied, and also sibling delinquency, such as drug use, due to the incarceration. As an individual’s educational level and socioeconomic in addition to minority status are a risk factor of incarceration, the children of minority groups are also at a risk of incarceration in their future as well, causing this vicious cycle to continue on in future generations of minorities.
An additional effect that incarceration brings is the decrease of the minority’s voice being heard in society. Martensen (2012) stated that the United States laws on the ‘war on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ is “developed particularly to insure incarceration among minorities” (p.213). In order for this legislation discrimination against minority groups to be overturned minorities need to be heard, however, all states except Maine and Vermont have restrictions on the voting rights of inmates and ex-inmates (Martensen, 2012). Furthermore, because of the hardship society places on minority community, these people are too busy dealing with their own individual issues such as putting food on the table, shelter over their heads and just surviving, to invest time in fighting for their rights and backlashing against society’s norms.
The United States Criminal Justice system focus on the “war on crime” seems to be a massive race to remove those different from the societal norm rather than properly integrate them into society. In the United States, there are 700 prisoners per 100,000 people in the population and in contrast in Norway there are significantly less prisoners (60 prisoners per 100,000 people in the population) (Wagner, 2003). The United States Criminal Justice System purpose seems to lie heavily on punishment, harsh justice and on labeling, rather than on resocializing and teaching the individual to reassimilate back into society successfully. In contrast, the basic principle of Norway’s Criminal Justice System is that with sentencing “you lose your freedom; but you don’t lose your dignity, your human rights, your civil rights” and to prepare inmates for a “seamless transition from prison to the community” (Strandberg, 2010, p. 74). By treating the individual with dignity by conserving their human and civil rights Norway is ahead of the United States as their system seems to be working as their prisoner counts are much lower than the United States.
In order for change to occur in the United States, society needs to learn to use diversity to its advantage rather than locking difference in our criminal justice system and setting minorities to fail in a world built around white privilege. The criminal justice system is a starting point to instilling human rights back into society. To create equality in the criminal justice system, laws need to be reformed to incorporate proportionality and fairness in punishment and equal sentencing among races, elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, eliminating or narrowing the use of life without parole and promotion of autonomy and privacy (Nation Behind Bars, n.d.). Through creation of program to rehabilitate people rather than imprison them such as sentencing to drug programs rather than imprisonment for low level drug offenses, would be more beneficial to the individual as well as more cost effective for the tax payer’s dollar. Reforming the laws of the criminal justice system is a start but not a solution to the problem that stems from inequalities in our society.
Society needs to realize the negative effect that these harsh punishments have on the individual, families and communities and realize how much of the system is run based on societal biases. Massoglia et al. (2012) noted the rise of the prison population in the United States as “largely policy-driven rather than being tied to any dramatic increase in criminal activity” (p. 161). With this in mind, society needs to evaluate if the additional public funding directed towards the correctional system is worth its expense especially if this funding is taken away from the educational system, health system and a number of other public goods and services. The extra funds should also be geared towards programs concerning the inmate’s reintegration into society, and back into the educational system as statistics show that a correlation between incarceration rates and an individual’s educational level. Also, programs to assist the family through the hardship should be establish as they may have a beneficial effect on promoting positive family dynamics which may put a stop to the vicious system inmate’s children from entering the criminal justice system themselves in the future (Aaron & Dallaire, 2010).
In conclusion, racial and ethnic inequality exist in the in the United States Criminal Justice System which stem from societal biases towards minority groups. These same biases cause limitation and inequality in education, employment and neighborhood resources which in which are contributing factors to an individual’s incarceration. In order for change to occur policies and legislature against discrimination need to be embedded in the criminal justice system and into society to prevent profiling and decision making based on stereotypes and biases. Additionally, public funding should be redirected to programing that reintegrates a person into society rather than stripping them of their identity, dignity and of their civil rights, and also back into the education system and other societal resources to help families and low socioeconomic neighborhoods in the community. References
Aaron, L., & Dallaire, D. H. (2010). Parental incarceration and multiple risk experiences: Effects on family dynamics and children’s delinquency. Journal Of Youth & Adolescence, 39(12), 1471-1484. doi:10.1007/s10964-009-9458-0
Binswanger, I. A., Redmond, N., Steiner, J. F., & Hicks, L. S. (2012). Health disparities and the Criminal Justice System: An agenda for further research and action. Journal Of Urban Health: Bulletin Of The New York Academy Of Medicine, 89(1), 98-107. doi:10.1007/s11524-011-9614-1
E-16. Unemployment rates by age, sex, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity [Press release]. (2014, April 4). Retrieved from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Hartney, C., & Vuong, L. (2009). Created equal: Racial and ethnic disparities in the US Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from National Council on Crime and Delinquency:
Harvey, C. P., & Allard, M. J. (2012). Understanding and managing diversity: Readings, cases and exercises (5th ed.). [VitalSource Bookshelf]. Retrieved from
Hood, L. J. (2014). Leddy & Pepper’s conceptual bases of professional nursing (8th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Lee, H., Wildeman, C., Wang, E. A., Matusko, N., & Jackson, J. S. (2014, March 1). A heavy burden: The cardiovascular health consequences of having a family member incarcerated. American Journal of Public Health, 104(3), 421-427. Retrieved from,cookie,ip,uid&db=s3h&AN=94398853&site=eds-live
Martensen, K. (2012). The price that US minority communities pay: Mass incarceration and the ideologies that fuel them. Contemporary Justice Review, 15(2), 2121-2142.
Massoglia, M., Firebaugh, G., & Warner, C. (2013). Racial variation in the effect of incarceration on neighborhood attainment. American Sociological Review, 78(1), 142-165.
Motivans, M. (2013) Federal Justice Statistics, 2010 [Database record]. Retrieved from Bureau of Justice Statistics:
Motivans, M. (2013). Federal Justice statistics 2010 - Statistical tables (NCJ 239914). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Nation Behind Bars: A human rights solution. (n.d.). Retrieved from Human Rights Watch Website:
Overview of race and Hispanic origin: 2010 [2010 Census Brief]. (2011). Retrieved from
Strandberg, K. W. (2010). The Norway prison system: A look from the inside. Corrections Forum, 19(6), 73-77. Retrieved from,cookie,ip,uid&db=sih&AN=56933197&site=eds-live
Swisher, R. R., & Roettger, M. E. (2012). Father’s incarceration and youth delinquency and depression: Examining differences by race and ethnicity. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22(4), 597-603. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2012.00810.x.
The Sentencing Project. (2005). Racial disparity in sentencing: A review of literature. Retrieved from
Usual weekly earnings of wage and salary workers [Press release]. (2014, April 17). Retrieved from Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor:
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...2015 The criminal justice system has caused a lot of heartache and pain due to its unfair, racist, biased opinion. Resulting in killings, shootings, and protests. There are a variety of races that make the headline stories of these events, but there is a specific race that repeatedly makes headlines of newspapers. The shootings and killing of African-Americans teenage boys have been the trending topic lately. It is hard to distinguish why these events happen. Certainly, there is no one, or race, to blame for this happening, however, understanding the root cause may help. The high incarceration rates of minorities is an examples and the killings proves how the criminal justice system is extremely flawed to this day and has always been built off of the privilege whites inherited and that blacks do not have. It has been proven time and time again that black and whites are not equal within the criminal justice system. History even says that the early conception of the criminal justice system and punishments were formed under conditions of colonialism and slavery. An example is white police offers repeatedly killing African American Males and being found not guilty; from Emmitt Till to the Ferguson case. Which is history repeating itself, the more things change, and the more they remain the same. In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals—goals shared by the Founding Fathers (Alexander). Which is also known as institutional racism, which is systematic...

Words: 821 - Pages: 4

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Ethnicity Essay

...socially constructed. Official statistics show there is a high level of ethnic minority crime in society for example blacks are five times more likely to be in prison than a white person. Left realists Lea and Young argue that statistics highlight that Black men are committing more crimes due to racism in society which is marginalising black people for example racism has led to high levels of unemployment amongst ethnic minority groups hence leading to poverty and poor housing situations. Lea and young believe that the Medias etherises on consumerism leads black men to feel relatively deprived as they are not able to maintain the goals of society via legitimate means hence they turn to delinquent subcultures as a means of gaining rewards through illegitimate means. This also links to Merton’s strain theory. However Neo Marxists criticise official statistics representation of ethnic minorities and crime, claiming that they are socially constructed and don’t reflect reality. Gilroy argues that Black crime is over represented in official statistics and is in fact a myth created by racist stereotypes. For example victim surveys rely on people’s memory to identify the ethnicity of the criminal, however people tend to rely on their stereotypical typifications, often saying their attacker was black when in reality they...

Words: 881 - Pages: 4

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Racism In James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk

...Racism has been a widespread epidemic in our U.S. Criminal Justice system. It is evident that racism exists in the court systems and behind prison walls. However, in the Criminal Justice system, it is covered up by rules, regulations, and the law. The writings of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”, (1974) exposes how the views of racist individuals can put another person in the custody of the court. Further, causing this person to be placed in the prison system as the outcome of racialism. Fonny, a black male, is falsely accused of committing a crime and he is at the mercy of the justice system. He is an example of how this racist cycle can have long- lasting effects on a human being. The struggles of a black man trying to deal with...

Words: 328 - Pages: 2

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Racial Discrimination

...The criminal justice system consists of three main parts: 1) the police; 2) the courts; and 3) the corrections. In the criminal justice system, these three groups function together under the rule of law to maintain the law within society. Despite its important role, there is a sufficient amount of evidence that blacks and aboriginal people are over-represented in the criminal justice system. The logic behind this problem is that racial discrimination and profiling is present, or it is the result of the differential offending patterns of the minority. After researching, I believe that aboriginal and blacks are over-represented in the criminal justice system due to racial discrimination and profiling. My reasoning behind this is based on the collected data that supports the fact that racial discrimination and profiling is apparent in the criminal justice system. Racial discrimination and profiling is most associated with the police, and that is strictly because they are the first contact with the suspects, victims, citizens, and the offenders. I also believe that the causes of the problem and the potential solutions are the same for both aboriginal and black people. The only variable that might alter the causes of the problem, and the potential solutions is the location in which the aboriginal and blacks live in. This being said, racial discrimination and profiling are without doubt the primary attributes in the over-representation of aboriginals and blacks in the criminal justice...

Words: 1772 - Pages: 8

Premium Essay

Disparity and Discrimination

...meaning lack of similarity and or inequality. Even though, in the criminal justice sytsem these words have diffenet meanings. These two terms have been evaluated within the criminal justice system, the dicrimination and disparity of ethic and racial groups have been recognized for a long time by some. At sometime or other disparity maybe the result of discrimination within the justice system in some situations. Disparity refers to the inequality in all aspects within the criminal justice system, for certain groups of individuals it conists og arrest to sentencing; this nearly will always refer back to ethic and racial disparity. Racial disparity is present within the criminal justice system as the porportion of an ethic or racial group is within the control of the system are greater than the the porportion of such groups within the general population ( The Sentencing Project,2008). Even though, it may not always be a relation to intentional discrimination racial disparity has been definately established within our justice system. Discrimination is defined as a distinction based on personal characteristics of an individual resulting in some degree of disadvantage to the indiviudual ( Law Encyclopedia, 2011). In order for us to better understand the similarities and differences between these two terms researchers have recently created the discrimination/disparity continuum in regards to the criminal justice system processes. Five elements consist on this spectrum, ranging from...

Words: 927 - Pages: 4