Is The Criminal Justice System Racially Biased


Is The Criminal Justice System Racially Biased? Essay, Research Paper

Is the Criminal Justice System Racially Biased?

Most criminologist use two sources of criminal justice data in the

United States: the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Crime

Victimization Surveys (NCVS). The URC data is made from law enforcement

agencies and include crime incidents reported to or obtained by the police.

NCVS data is obtained from a very complex national survey of a sample of homes

and provide information about crime incidents and victims for both reported and

unreported crimes, excluding homicide. For my report I obtained research

information from questionnaires and from several text books. I gave the

questionnaire concerning bias in the criminal justice system to four whites,

four blacks, one Asia, and one Mexican. Although this sample is not

representative of racial attitudes in general, it can used to develop a better

sense of differences among students.

To discuss my findings fully I must define a few terms. The Criminal

Justice System is the network of agencies that respond to crime, including the

police, courts, jails, and prisons. Minority Group is a group of people who,

because of physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out for

differential and different and who regard them as objects of collective

discrimination. Discrimination is the act of singling out for unfair treatment.

Labeling is stereotyping, or putting a tag on someone, and treating them

accordingly. Self-fulling Prophecy is an expectation about how things will be

the situations that they predicted or expected. Finally, Differential

Association is the idea that interacting with others learns criminal behavior.

It is no secret whites and blacks in America experience life differently

because of their race. Therefore, whites and blacks view the criminal justice

system differently. My research found 70% of those studied agree the courts do

not offer equal treatment. Although both agree that the system is biased,

whites seem to have a more positive view about the whole system, while Blacks

feel the system is corrupt and works’ against them. 50% of my non-white sample

and 20% of my white sample felt the courts discriminate. James Henslin, author

of the text Social Problems, states “[Violent crime] recedes with income

people with higher incomes live in better, more affluent and less violent

neighborhoods”(Henslin 141). The criminal justice system is made up of these

type people, who are mostly white, and they share the same moral community.

Blacks however are on the outskirts of that moral community or in another

different moral community. Ultimately whites and blacks do not relate to and

understand the Criminal Justice System the same for they view and react to the

actions of authorities based on their life experiences caused by race and SES

I stated earlier that blacks and whites are in different moral

communities, this means that the normal excepted behavior for one group is not

the same for the other group. We can prove this with statistics. The median

family income for whites is 38,909 and for blacks it is 21,161. This shows that

blacks earn 54% of what whites earn. In addition, 4% of whites are unemployed,

while 8% of blacks are unemployed. This shows that blacks are unemployed at a

rate of 200% compared with unemployed whites. Also, 9% of whites live in

poverty, compared with 31% of blacks living in poverty. This is an astonishing

figure that states 344% of blacks live in unacceptable conditions compared with

whites. What does all of this mean? Where and how you live decide who you are,

and contribute to labelling. Obviously, blacks have a lower SES and fall

victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy and labels. The problem arises when “the

Criminal Justice System discriminates against these groups of citizens” (Henslin


In William Chambliss’ study of “Saints and Roughnecks” he proved that

social class does matter. People and police in the local community labelled the

lower class kids as worst than the upper-class kids based on their parents’ SES

(Henslin 190). The police also believed this label. They proved discrimination

against the “roughnecks” because they had the discretion to harass and arrest

whoever they wanted. Although both groups participated in the same activities,

the “roughnecks” were harassed worst than the “saints.” My research found 100%

of my sample agree police discriminate. Although Chambliss’ study dealt with

high and low class students, our studies can be compared for race coincides with

class status in American society. 60% of my non-white sample felt police

discriminate almost always to sometimes, but 10% felt they do so almost always.

30% of my white sample felt the police discriminate, but that they do so almost

never; the other 10% felt they do so only sometimes. Many whites, therefore, fit

into the category of “Saints.’ My studies show both have knowledge os some sort

of police discrimination.

Another example of this discrimination is found in the sentences of

three young males: Buddy 19-year-old black, Gary 34, and Clyde 21, both white.

The trio robbed a l liquor store and were caught by authorities. Clyde came up

with the 5,000 dollars it took to secure his bond. Gary and Buddy could not so

they had to stay in jail. Just before the trial Clyde plead guilty and received

five years probation after the judge previously sentenced him to 3-5. Gary

received 6-10 years in prison. Buddy on the other hand received a 15-year

minimum prison term. Three men received different punishments for the same

crime and the black man got the worst sentence (Henslin 184).

The issue of discrimination in the criminal justice system has been in

the eye of the Supreme Court for years, however with issues of capital

punishment it has taken a new twist. In the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v.

Georgia, the court ruled that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment

as prohibited by the eighth and fourteenth amendments. Five on the nine

justices addressed the racial issue. Judge Marshall said it was

unconstitutional because it, “imposed discriminatorily against certain

identifiable classes of people”(Aguire and Baker 110). A few years later this

decision was overturned. Nonetheless, within a few years capital punishment was

used in the courts again. Ideally, the court room should leave no room for

discrimination, bias, and labelling, for ones life is at stake. However, this

is easier said than done. “Police are more likely to arrest black

suspects”(Henslin 213). A recent study revealed astonishing evidence of

racial bias in Virginia. Sociologist Donald Partington examined all death row

inmates in Virginia charged with rape and attempted rape between 1908 and 1963.

Between this time, of the 2798 convicted men 56% were black. All of these black

men were executed. Ironically none of the 44% convicted white men were

executed (213). This proved just how racially biased Virginia, and probably

others, were between 1908 and 1963.

Applying sociological labels to these concerns provide concrete

credibility. Symbolic Interactionist emphasize, social class is a powerful

symbol that affects people’s perceptions and behavior; and authorities tend to

see what they want to see. Because of this, many blacks are already seen in a

negative way in the eyes of the criminal justice system. Functionalist consider

crime a natural part of society. To them crime serves a purpose in the criminal

justice system. The police target crime from black degenerates in society for

they are easily targeted, to meet their quotas and goals in order to fake doing

a lot to stop crime in society as a whole. Of course blacks are among the

lowest social class in America. They have little defense to this tactic and it

perpetuates the negative label given to them, and reinforces their self

fulfilling prophecy. Conflict theorist see the criminal justice system as a

strategy administered and created according to the wishes of the powerful. With

this theory, law enforcement is a cultural device the powerful use to carry out

their policies. Also it serves as an instrument of repression designed to

maintain the powerful in their privileged positions. Here plea-bargaining is

used to effectively enforce social control over the poor at a reduced cost to

the state. However, this is not to say that the powerful do not commit crimes.

Their crimes are called white collar and are usually handled in courts that

instead of administering prison terms render fines. In all, these labels work

together to better define and understand the social problem of discrimination in

the criminal justice system. Ethnic discrimination is clearly functional for

certain groups. Symbolic interactionest help in determining how people see

themselves and others. They also, allow well-meaning people to discriminate

with a clear conscience.

Many people began to refute the notion that the criminal justice was

racially biased so the government implemented two programs effecting the fate of

minorities and the poor offenders in this country. First, the Sentencing Reform

Act of 1984 gave mandatory sentences. Secondly the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

which caused the principal increase of black populations in prisons. Despite

the fact that these programs were implemented at almost the same time; the

combined effect of guideline justice and the war on drugs has been disastrous

for the poor minority population. We can conclude, although the justice system

overcame much of the overt racism that existed before, disproportionate racial

disparity still exist. The system purposely adopted policies that continue to

target poor minorities.

My results did show that there was differences in the way black and

white students in American society view the criminal justice system. Because

race can be compared to SES non-whites have a more negative view of how often

police discriminate. On the other hand whites are not ignorant to the negative

police discrimination non-whites face; nevertheless they feel it happens much

less than it actually does, or almost never. Similar, in the courts, more non-

whites feel their is discrimination. My answer to this could be that non-whites

are being convicted, going to jail and receiving the death penalty, while white

are the ones suing, and are not getting convicted for crimes when they are

arrested. While we all agree the criminal justice system is corrupt, my studies

show, whites and blacks disagree with the extent to which it happens. This is an

obvious result because blacks and whites are in two separate moral communities.

Blacks have been negatively labeled, and stigmatized as lower class citizens who

cause trouble. Inturn they have been the victim of legislation that keeps them

in the dismal status they are in.

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