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Inequality In The Legal System

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Inequality In The Legal System Essay, Research Paper

In the United States, true equality has never existed. From the

Declaration of Independence to modern times, the US legal system has failed at

any attempt at equality. ?…all men are created equal…? may be what the

Declaration says, but ?some men are more equal than others? is how the legal

system interprets that phrase. The actual reality of the Declaration of

Independence is that all free, white, landowning men are created equal.

Therefore, inequality has always existed in the united States? legal system

and continues to exist today; however, the inequality presently in the system

is not as blatant as what it once was. Slavery continued in the United States

for nearly ninety years after the Declaration, and African Americans still

feel the sting of inequality today. If the US legal system is blind and just

as it is supposed to be, why, then, is a minority, such as the African

American race, the majority?

One of the most controversial issues today is the act of racial

profiling. The most common form is direct, meaning victims are directly

profiled, usually by the police. In this form, individual officers act on

racial stereotypes against racial minorities, especially African Americans.

Recent studies in New Jersey and Illinois have confirmed that minorities are

disproportionately targeted by police officers, although minorities are almost

helpless in reporting ?color of law? attacks. It is their word against a

legal official and, in most cases, the minority victim does not receive

justification because the officers are cleared of charges. In 1957 President

Eisenhower mandated that the United States Department of Justice prosecute

civil rights violations, to include police misconduct, thus, allowing uniform

application of civil rights law across the nation. Officers cleared of

wrongdoing often do not understand the legal guidelines for police misconduct

and feel unjustly targeted by the Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau

of Investigation, which have jurisdiction in this matter. That feeling of

injustice is false, considering that out of nearly 10,000 color of law

complaints received each year by the Department of Justice, only about thirty

police officers are actually prosecuted (Schafer). Since 1957 approximately

74 percent of all civil rights investigations reported each year allege police

misconduct (Schafer). In the rare case that a police officer is actually

punished, penalties could range from probation all the way to the death

penalty depending on the severity of the crime. According to a June 1999

study done by the American Civil Liberties Union, many states have denied that

racial profiling occurs despite overwhelming evidence supporting it. The

public wants to believe that police officers are doing their jobs righteously

by protecting and serving; however, according to the study, most Americans can

recognize the difference between racism and assertive, effective policing


Millions of Americans watch television everyday for various reasons, but

the most common one is to get the latest news. People like to stay informed,

but what good is it when they are constantly being misinformed? The media

tend to ?profile? just as much, if not more, than police, just in an indirect

way, thus, the second form of racial profiling. The media fails to cover

their own profiling, but are the first to criticize police racial profiling.

When they actually do acknowledge their own profiling, they tend to try to

cover it up more than give coverage. The number of African Americans involved

in an issue are usually over-represented by the media, therefore further

racializing the issue. This fact that African Americans seem to be so largely

involved in so many issues is viewed as nothing more than unfortunate reality,

so it is not viewed as racism. Certain issues constantly associated with

African Americans include drugs, crime, welfare and the affirmative action


Indirect profiling by the media focused mainly on tow topics: drugs and

crime. Public opinion polls indicated the overwhelming majority of Americans

had ?relatively little firsthand experience with the extent of the problems

associated with drug use.? Also ?the majority of Americans report getting

most of their information about the seriousness of the illicit drug problems

from the news media, mainly television? (?Media Blackface?). An article

written by Raja Mishra appearing in the Denver Post on March 19, 1998,

reported how ?doctors said the public has been misled by media accounts of

certain issues? (Media Blackface?).

In March 1998 two studies on the United States drug policy were released

by the Physician Leadership on the National Drug Policy. The first study

concluded that drug treatment of drug addiction was not only an effective

health measure, but that it was much more cost-effective than the

criminalizing policies of the current ?drug war? (?Media Blackface?). One

section of the study showed how, contrary to popular perception, drug addicts

are not primarily members of minority racial and ethnic groups. The research

showed, conclusively, that drug addiction reaches across all strata of

society. The most likely drug users and abusers are actually educated

Caucasians. Last year over half of those who admitted using heroine and 60

percent of monthly cocaine users were Caucasian. 70 percent of regular

marijuana users were reported as Caucasian, while only one sixth were reported

as African American (?Media Blackface?).

Another study about the public misperception of drug use was ?The Public

and the War on Illicit Drugs?, a survey of fifty years of public opinion. It

appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found

that although Americans did not think the so-called ?war on drugs? was

succeeding, they did not want to abandon the criminalization approach pushed

by the government (?Media Blackface?). The PLNDP presented the JAMA study at

its press conference to emphasize how public opinion and the judgment of

physicians were at odds against each other and how the news media was playing

a leading role in misinforming the public about the health and financial

issues at the heart of the ?Drug War? policy (?Media Blackface?). These

findings were not covered by any of the three major newsweeklies including

Time, US News & World Report or Newsweek. When the story was actually covered

by CNN Today, Associated Press, and USA Today, the dominant media focused on

the disconnection between the views of the public and the research of the

physicians-but said nothing about the role of the news media in fostering the

stereotypes fueling the bad drug policy (?Media Blackface?).

A crime study done by the UCLA professors Franklin Gilliam and Shanto

Iyengar entitled, ?Crime in Black and White: The Violent, Scary World of

Local news?, appeared recently in the academic journal Press/Politics. It

found through a content analysis of a local television station KABC in Los

Angeles that the coverage of crime featured two important cues: ?crime is

violent and criminals are nonwhite? (?Media Blackface?). It revealed how

television viewers were so accustomed to seeing African American crime

suspects on the local news that even when the race of the suspect was not

specified , viewers tended to remember seeing an African American suspect.

Another crime study done by Yale University professor Martin Gilen

entitled ?Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American

News Media?, was published in the Public Opinion Quarterly in 1996. The study

found that while African Americans make up 29 percent of the nation?s poor,

they constitute 62 percent of the images of the poor in leading news magazines

and 65 percent of the images of the poor on leading network television news

programs (?Media Blackface?). On these news programs the poor were not only

portrayed as African American, but they were also portrayed in the most

unsympathetic fashion. The study was only covered by the Associated Press and

CNN?s Reliable Source. The Associated Press?s coverage stood out because it

addressed Gilen?s point about the news media perpetuating racist

misperceptions of the poor that are associated with greater opposition to

welfare policy among whites (?Media Blackface?). CNN?s Reliable Source

avoided the point that racism was the reason ?blackface? was on poverty in the

first place. Gilen also pointed out how ?apparently well-meaning, racially

liberal news professionals generate images of the social world that

consistently misrepresent both African Americans and poor people in

destructive ways? (?Media Blackface?).

The practice of racial profiling has become a major destructive issue in

our society today. The practice has been going on for decades, but only in

recent years after heightened pressure by civil rights advocates and a flood

of lawsuits has any legislative action been taken. The American Bar

Association urged lawmakers to enact legislation to end racial profiling. It

passed a resolution calling for federal, state and local legislation requiring

law enforcement agencies to collect data on all traffic stops that would be

reported to the Justice Department (Worden). The Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer

said that legislation was severely needed otherwise bitterness and hate

towards the justice system would occur. Currently, eleven states have

introduced bills requiring data collection in all traffic stops (Worden).

Both North Carolina and Connecticut have recently passed laws (SB76 and

SB1282) to address racial profiling.

As a direct result of racial profiling, African Americans have almost

never been thought of highly in this country?s legal system. This does not

allow them to have fair trials and more often than not, African Americans end

up in prison. These two statements get truer every year by the steady rise of

the African American population being imprisoned. In 1985 only around three

percent of the United States population of prisoners were African American,

but had risen to nearly seven percent by 1997 according to the Bureau of

Justice statistics (Cose 42).

African Americans are admitted to prisons at higher rates than

Caucasians, a difference at least partly due to discrimination in the

administration of justice. The prison system is not responsible, since it has

no control over who is admitted or the number of people admitted, but it is

wholly accountable for the treatment of prisoners. Mistreatment is the

general theme that racism behind bars may be used to intimidate African

Americans and other racialized prisoners, operating as an indirect method of

control (?Racism Behind Bars Revisited?). Prisoners who are seen to conform

to the ?norms? of the institution and who obey the rules quickly and quietly

are offered rewards such as early parole, permission to be absent during their

prison term and may receive other privileges while in jail. Prisoners who are

not perceived as compliant may find their privileges withheld, parole denied,

or involuntary transfers imposed. They may also be subjected to institutional

punishments, such as segregation cells or forcibly controlled through violence

by correctional officers or other prisoners provoked by the staff (?Racism

Behind Bars Revisited?). Although imprisonment involves the loss of some

personal freedom, the law makes it clear that the state cannot take away all

of the prisoner?s rights. Most prison policies promote key principles to

govern the treatment of prisoners including to be entitled to equality, to be

entitled to justice, and to be entitled to respect. Thus both formal law and

official policies require that prisoners be treated in accordance with the

fundamental values of equality, fairness, accountability and decency (?Racism

Behind Bars Revisited?).

Most prisons also use a system of institutional punishments when

punishing their inmates. Some rules emphasize demeanor or attitude and

respect for authority; some concern harm to persons or property; others focus

on risks to security and control (?Racism Behind Bars Revisited?). Although

there are rules, many prisoners complain that the power to punish is not used

evenly and fairly. They insist that correctional officers punish African

American prisoners more frequently, more severely and for less reason than

Caucasian prisoners. Correctional officers, both African American and

Caucasian, expressed the same concerns. They supported that African American

inmates were more severely punished for insignificant incidents, that twice as

many African Americans were put into segregation merely because they were

African American, and that African American inmates receive far harsher

misconducts than Caucasian inmates due to the perception that African American

inmates are more violent or are instigators in most incidents (?Racism Behind

Bars Revisited?). The Commission designed a study to investigate disciplinary

practices at five prisons that hold significant numbers of African American

prisoners. The study findings were consistent with the perception that

African American prisoners are more likely to be charged with misconduct and

punished than Caucasian prisoners (?Racism Behind Bars Revisited?).

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 3, 219

prisoners on death row in 1996. The majority were Caucasian with 57 percent,

but the people on death row were disproportionately African American, compared

with the African American share of the population (Klein 39). African

Americans made up 43 percent of the death row inmates, which was more than

three times the 13 percent share of the US population (Klein 39). This is

mainly because African Americans rarely receive strong legal representation.

They either can?t afford good attorneys or attorneys who have experience in

that area are so overburdened that defendants must rely on public defenders or

other attorneys with little or no expertise in covering a capital defense

(Ebony 100). Most African Americans are on death row for the accusation of

killing a Caucasian person, which makes the public wonder if there is a

premium on Caucasian life.

Currently there are around 3,500 inmates on death row and at least 14

percent are believed to be innocent according to statistics provided by the

Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC. At least seven Illinois

inmates have been released in the past eight years by reinvestigation into

their cases (Ebony 100). That fact proves that an unlimited amount of inmates

could be innocent, but still on death row because their case has not been

re-examined. There have been a total of 87 pardons as of March 20, 2000.

Eight of those included DNA testing to prove the defendant innocent. Of the

prisoners released, a highly surprising number of 41 were African American,

while only 35 were Caucasian (?Prisoners Freed from Death Row in Order by Year

of Release?).

While many prisoners have been pardoned over the years, many more have

been executed, whether they were innocent of the crimes they were accused of

or not. As of December 7, 2000, there have been a total of 682 executions in

the US since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Texas performed

a total of 239 of those executions. The highest number of executions occurred

in 1999, when 98 were performed (?Execution Statistics Summary–State and

Year?). Currently there are 24 execution dates set for December 2000 through

April 2001 (?Pending US Executions?).

The United States? legal system has never been truly equal because it

was founded on inequality and has always depended on inequality. The system

could easily be changed to eliminate those inequalities, such as racial

profiling, discrimination among prisoners and the disproportionality of death

row, but that will not likely happen. So long as there is a majority

dependent on the disparities of a minority, the system will maintain its

current sanctity. In doing so, the system will remain dependent on inequality

and provide means for future inequalities. The US legal system will always

adapt to allow for inequalities.

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