Television shows such as Dateline, 60 Minutes and 20/20 have often aired segments on discrimination within the justice system through hidden cameras recording police behavior towards minorities, interviews with minorities falsely accused or mistreated, and by referring to capital punishment statistics seemingly biased especially towards blacks. The Justice Files has produced several biographies on minorities who were subjected to some atrocity by the American justice system. General interpretation of nationwide statistics seem to give the public the feeling that minorities are more likely to be incarcerated or subjected to capital punishment and more frequently experience racism by police officers, juries or other officials. Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, Mark Fuhrman and other recent figures have demonstrated that an individual’s race may in fact be critical to how they are perceived by the criminal justice system.
Through this research paper, I decided to pursue the “evidence” of discrimination to find where it stemmed from, the causes for it, and how it affects the application of justice. After reviewing the theories and statistics regarding minorities within the justice system, there is an easily apparent disparity between the percentage of minorities per population incarcerated versus whites. Minorities have a far greater risk of being a participant in the judicial system through arrest or other circumstances and often receive harsher sentences. And minorities, blacks especially, are at greater risk of being subjected to capital punishment. There are several reasons for this: 1) Minorities tend to be undereducated when compared with whites. 2) Minorities have lower average income levels with a high percentage at the poor or poverty level. 3) Racism and prejudice has existed in this country since its inception, and although difficult to establish statistically, this tangible characteristic has adversely affected the ability of the judicial system to remain blind to the ethnicity of its participants. This has stemmed injustice from the thin blue line (Rodney King) to the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson). 4) Finally, minorities suffer from drug and alcohol abuse and other social disorders at a higher percentage than whites.
Evidence of the disproportionate percentage of minorities incarcerated is readily available. According to Katheryn Russell, author of Color of Crime, blacks make up 12% of the overall U.S. population. Yet they represent 30% of arrests and 50% of those incarcerated (28-29). The most amazing statistic comes from Marvin Free, Jr. whose research found that African Americans living in cities with a population of 250,000 or more have a 51% chance of being arrested (African Americans…, 8). Russell listed many of the ridiculous reasons minorities have been pulled over by police officers: 1) Driving a luxury car, 2) driving with a white woman, 3) driving in a white neighborhood, 4) driving late at night and several others. The reasoning behind many traffic stops of blacks were so ludicrous that Russell believed a new charge should be established: DWB or “Driving While Black” (Color…,33).
Capital punishment also reflects racial disparity. Between 1977 and 1984, the state of Texas executed 13 African Americans who were convicted of killing whites. No whites convicted of killing blacks were executed. Prior to 1974, 65% of those executed were black. Presently, over 40% of those executed are black and the percentage increases to over 55% when all minorities are included (African…, 107). One example of the extreme measures the justice system will take against minority killers is the situation that occurred in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Police had been investigating a black rapist/murderer for four years without any success. They finally asked all black men in the area to submit to fingerprinting. No such intrusive incident has ever been recorded when the killer was white (ibid., 111).
Following arrest and conviction of minorities, there is another racial disparity that occurs within the American justice system: sentencing. The length of sentences between whites and minorities is somewhat similar (although slightly biased against minorities) when the crimes occur against a minority. However, when minorities commit crimes against whites, they are sentenced harsher than when whites commit crimes against minorities (The Color of Justice, 164). The fact that minorities are at a higher risk of being arrested tends to increase sentences as prior convictions are more likely. Another less important factor in sentencing disparity is the race of the judge. During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, 14% of the appointed judges were minorities. 1.8% of Ronald Reagan’s appointees were minorities (ibid., 168). There is only a small amount of statistically significant evidence that shows white judges are more harsh on minorities than minority judges are. However, there is the perception (and reality) that the judicial system is primarily composed of whites. A sworn affidavit by Hirsch Friedman, a white Atlanta attorney and FBI informant, stated that the FBI, in the 60’s and 70’s, had a policy of investigating black officials in major cities in order to discredit and undermine their authority. The justification for this was, “that black officials were intellectually and socially incapable of governing major governmental organizations and institutions.” (Free, African…, 39) Such attempts to undermine minority progress as administrators in the American justice system would obviously be reflected in the way the process of justice is enacted.
Another factor contributing to the racial disparities in the justice system is education. L. Scott Miller stated in An American Imperative that the difference in SAT scores between whites and minorities is nearly 200 points. He believed
…minorities are not making enough progress, especially in education.
considerable degree on minorities reaching educational parity with
Dorothy Waggoner researched educational disparities between whites and minorities and discovered that blacks are 1.6 times as likely to be undereducated than whites. This was especially true in the South and inner cities of metropolitan areas. 1 out of 6 minorities between the ages 16-24 are not enrolled in school. The figure increases to 1 out of 3 when the focus is limited to Hispanics. 1 out of 8 whites in the same age category are not enrolled in school (Undereducation in America, 45-48). Russell noted that minorities have an illiteracy rate of 2 times the white percentage (The Color of Crime, 29). These obvious indicators of undereducation among minorities help partially explain the high incarceration and arrest statistics.
Russell also discovered other high rates among minorities in regards to socially dysfunctional characteristics.
When compared with whites, blacks have much higher percentages
of out-of-wedlock births, infant mortality, illiteracy, unemployment,
female-headed households, and poverty. For almost every measure
Drug and alcohol abuse is a serious problem for minorities. Alcoholism occurs at a rate of 3 times more among minorities than whites. This may be brought on by social stresses such as unemployment or the breakdown of traditional family structures. Unfortunately, minorities also seek and complete treatment at a much lower rate than whites (Trimble, Ethnic…, 29-36). Drug and alcohol abuse has been successfully linked in basically all research to an increase in criminal or deviant behavior; this information may help further explain the disproportionate percentage of minorities retained by the American justice system.
An important factor that cannot be overlooked when researching the apparent disparities in the justice system is the percentage of minorities within the at-risk age group. Studies have shown that as people grow older, the likelihood that they will be arrested or incarcerated decreases. 26.5% of minorities are between the ages of 15 & 29. 26.9% of minorities are under 15 (Free, African…, 3). Over a quarter of the minority population falls in the highest risk for arrest category with another quarter moving in that direction. The risk of drug and alcohol abuse also peaks in the 15-29 age group (Trimble, Ethnic…, 29). This variable is often underrated, but it should be considered seriously when reviewing racial disparity. The reasons why over 50% of the minority population is under 30 may also be contributing factors to the disparity.
Several theories have been advanced by social scientists to explain why minorities comprise 50% of the prison population and why their likelihood of arrest is so high. They focus on deviant behavior as the source of the racial disparity in the justice system and endeavor to discover the source of the behavior itself. The consensus and conflict theory focuses on the different and similar social values among races. It proposes that the similar values are too weak for races to achieve equality and the different values will harm the minority group because the values of the majority will predominate. The strain theory is simple: the more stressed an individual is, the more likely they are to commit a crime. The theory offers evidence that minorities are more strained due to economic and social disadvantage. The subculture of violence theory suggests that gangs and rap music and their popularity among youth has created a subculture prone to violent acts. Finally, the frustration/aggression theory states that minorities get frustrated when goals cannot be reached due to prejudice, economic disadvantage or other situations, and they become aggressive to either obtain them or vent their anger. These theories all seem somewhat plausible in explaining the disproportionate arrest and incarceration rates of minorities.
Katheryn Russell agreed that the aforementioned evidence can account for a high percentage of the racial disparity in the American justice system. However, she believed that there still remains a 25% gap in unexplained disparity that can only be resolved by allowing for prejudice and racism (The Color of Crime, 31). Marvin Free noted a study by McNeely and Pope (1980) that said
…the use of official statistics can distort the actual involvement
of African Americans in crime because…there may be overt
discrimination in the enforcement and application of criminal
sanctions (African…, 5)
It may even be argued that the previous evidence for deviant behavior and the resulting aberrant arrest/incarceration statistics are the result of hundreds of years of overt prejudice and racism. Minorities may be poor, violent and demonstrate other anti-social behavior because they have learned this response according to the environment whites have created. Mark Fuhrman and his perjured testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial (regarding his prejudice against blacks) happened only a few years ago. Racism has not been extinguished in the American justice system and its continued presence has adversely affected minorities.
Racial disparities in the process by which justice is served is evident in the statistics involving arrests, incarceration rates, sentencing and capital punishment. Minorities represent a much higher percentage of the above statistics than their percentage in the population. There are several reasons for this. Undereducation of minorities is a serious problem especially in the South and inner cities. Drug and alcohol abuse have influenced minorities in a devastating way. The median age of minorities is much younger than whites with over half of minorities being younger than 30. The size of this at-risk age group has increased the percentage of minorities being arrested and incarcerated. Minorities tend to earn lower wages and have high percentages of their populations in the poor or poverty levels. The difficulties minorities can experience in obtaining their goals have led to several theories on how frustration against society is released (e.g. through violence). Finally, racism and prejudice have restrained minority participation in the justice system in official forms and have created an adverse environment for minorities being processed through it.
The ability of any generation to reverse the disparate trend apparent in the American justice system depends on full knowledge and understanding of the origins of the problem. Perhaps then some solutions can be ascertained and implemented. Progress is noticeable when the present is compared with the first two-thirds of the 20th century. But most important, people must recognize that there still remains a disparity between whites and minorities in the justice system, and they need to believe that civil liberties and equality for all is ultimately necessary.
Free, Marvin D. Jr. African Americans and the Criminal Justice System. Garland
Publishing, Inc., New York. 1996.
Russell, Katheryn K. The Color of Crime. New York University Press, New York.
Perspectives on Current Research. The Haworth Press, Inc., New York. 1992.
Dropouts. Auburn House, Westport Connecticut. 1991.
Walker, Spohn & DeLone. The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity and Crime
Wekesser, Carol. Social Justice Opposing Viewpoints. Greenhaven Press, Inc. 1990.