Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System
The question whether there is racial bias in the criminal justice system has haunted the United States of America for a long time. Even the people who answer negatively are likely to concede that there exists a perception of discrimination regarding color within communities. This is because the communities just looks at the number of its arrested and imprisoned members and compares it to that of the white community. The paper posits that the American Criminal Justice System is a racially integrated institution. This enables the oppressive characteristics of white-black relations in the society that find their way into to the system. There is profound racial bias in the Criminal Justice System. For instance, Knowles (2005) established that racism is a dominant theme in sexual victimization within the American prisons. Sargent (2010) echoed the same position by establishing that there was no random distribution of crimes with respect to race.
In the year 2008, while giving his speech, a candidate for the President Barak Obama called the nation for a discussion on race in the United States of America. In the speech, Obama reminded Americans of the words of William Faulkner that the past is not dead and buried. In fact, the past is not even the past. As Obama observed, the numerous disparities between black and white people in America are traceable to inequalities sanctioned by the American state, as well as federal laws. The first culprits are the laws that protected slavery. Others included the laws that imposed and perpetuated segregation, commonly referred as the Jim Crow laws. These laws legalized discrimination and prevented blacks, Asians, as a well as other nonwhites from possessing property or becoming American citizens. There was also the Fair Housing Act that prevented African-Americans from accessing mortgages and employment regulations that barred blacks and other minority people from joining unions, the police force, as well as fire departments. Other policies have nearly brought the extinction of native cultures, as well as Native Americans themselves (Ogletree, 2010).
Race is a complex topic, particularly because the concept of race is considered a social construct and has no genetic roots (Alexander, 2010). This implies that human beings have come up with the idea of race, in order to get the advantage over others. The American race history consists of massive injustice, a fact that is significantly difficult for American citizens to acknowledge. The white population works hard and does not feel it has any distinct privileges (Ogletree, 2010). A significant number of this population does not know the history of the race, as well as the laws and policies with a basis of color (Knowles, 2005). The race issue is weighty and calls for public debate, even if such practices cause discomfort.
Ogletree (2010) has written on the experiences of well-educated African-Americans who have been victims of racial bias in the United States. The writer tells the story of a professor at Harvard University who faced arrest for breaking and getting into his own home. There are also accounts of men who have struggled to overcome the negative stereotypes, such as that people of color are uneducated or untouchable, only to realize that even in their current social statuses, racial bias still exists. Besides, there are people who have faced wrong convictions mainly because of their color. Ogletree (2010) tells the story of Ronald Cotton, a black man, who spent ten years in prison for a rape he never committed. Mr. Cotton was lucky, for the court later exonerated and released him. He found peace and decided to forgive and befriend his white accuser. Ronald and his accuser now travel the country together to warn others of the dangers of racial bias in the justice system.
Alexander (2010) has described experiences of African-American men who continue to face a life of discrimination even after serving times in jail and paying their debts to the society. The men cannot access jobs and housing, face exclusion from the jury service, and cannot get school loans. Besides, they cannot access public benefits, and the authorities deny them of their right to vote. Such people do not recover from the harm that the criminal justice system imposes. They live with the pain that comes out from their association with the flawed system. In the society, they pass their hurt, as well as anger on to other people, such as children, spouses, relatives, or friends. They might also inflict pain on their societies and strangers (Alexander, 2010). After some time, the damage destroys the trust between neighbors as well as breaks down entire communities. However, the most traumatizing effect is the weakening of trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.
For example, research has indicated that, in the American correction institutions, homosexuals do not specifically propagate rapes in prisons, but rather heterosexuals who want to revenge and show their racial power. This explains why 90% of prison rapes in the U.S. are interracial (Knowles, 2005). The rapes may not only arise from sexual gratification, but also from the sexual dominance of one race over another. The majority of the rapes are by blacks raping whites, which suggests that it offers the lower class black society a chance to dominate the upper-class white society. This may explain why most victims are young white prisoners. Besides, blacks view prisons as symbols of the white domination (Jones, 2000). This is specifically so to the people who blame their social problems on white dominance. They posit that their current low-class status is because of the evils of the white man, like slavery and racial discrimination. In prison, they get an avenue to settle such old scores by raping the whites. This has led to further acts of violence and crime in the criminal justice system.
The Department of Justice should facilitate change in prisons by developing new programs of dealing with prison rapes. There should be conjugal visits or home furlough programs, in order to enable inmates to satisfy their sexual needs. However, this solution may not fully work as not all prisoners have wives or have reached the age of marriage. In addition, some prisoners are too violent to spend some time with their wives. On the same note, these visits may not work. This is because prison rape is more of “power gratification” than “sexual gratification (Knowles, 2005). Inmate classification and grouping seems the most viable option. However, because of the racist overtones that male prison rape has, the classification and grouping of inmates should also be racial.
A report issued by a group of civil rights organizations called the largely and pervasively biased handling of blacks, as well as Hispanics by the American police and courts the principal civil rights problem in the twenty-first century (Jones, 2000). The study established that the minorities in the US encountered discriminatory treatment at all stages of the judicial process, ranging from arrest to imprisonment. The report findings pointed out that Hispanic and African-Americans, as well as those from other minority groups, faced unfair targeting by law enforcement officers, racially discriminatory charging and plea-bargaining judgment by prosecutors. They also faced discriminatory sentencing by judges.
The report examined various aspects of the justice system. It the first chapter, it identified rampant cases of racial profiling and cited various case studies that documented the habitual targeting of minorities by patrol officers in highways. For instance, the study monitored traffic stops by the State police in Maryland from 1995 to 1997 and established that 85 percent of the people stopped and searched were black. It was even signed as only 18 percent of the drivers of that route were black. Besides, the report looked at Volusia County and found out that approximately 70 percent of those stopped in Central Florida were either Hispanics or blacks. This is despite the fact that only 5 percent of the road users in that area were Hispanics or black people. It was also evident that minorities underwent longer detentions of time per stop when compared with whites. In addition, 80 percent of the cars that underwent searches after stopping belonged to Hispanics or blacks (Jones, 2000). These case studies revealed the rampant cases of racial bias in the American Criminal Justice System. The officials in the system tend to be more suspicious to black and Hispanic people, including people from other minority races, than to white people.
Other studies have revealed that there is the systematic use of prosecutorial discretion to the disadvantage of defendants from minority races. For instance, Ogletree (2010) reviewed 700,000 criminal cases in California between 1981 and 1990. The study revealed that 20 percent of defendants from the white race charged with offenses with the option of diversion got that benefit. On the other hand, only 15 percent of blacks and 11 percent of Hispanics with similar cases benefited from such programs. The report revealed that, during the pre-trial stage, a white lawbreaking defendant with no prior criminal conviction had a 34 percent likelihood of getting the charge reduced to an infraction or misdemeanor while the chance was only 25 percent for a similarly placed black or Hispanic person.
There have also been cases of disproportionate harsh treatment of the youth based on race. There exists a large discrepancy between white and other races youth for juvenile arrests for drug sale. A case study of Baltimore, Maryland, established that black youth had a 100 percent more chance of arrest for selling drugs that white ones. This was despite the fact that drug use in youth of the two races was equal (Jones, 2000). There is also widespread discrimination in the American Judicial system. For instance, when black and white youth go to court with the same offenses, the black ones with no criminal record have a six times likelihood of incarceration than their white counterpart with similar backgrounds (Jones, 2000).
There is evidence of discrimination against Hispanics by the United States’ Immigration and Naturalization Service. For instance, Alexander (2010) notes that 75 percent of the people deported are of Mexican origin even given Mexicans are less than a half of all undocumented people in the United States. There is also a glaring racial imbalance in implementing the death penalty. Alexander (2010) has noted that blacks who kill whites face death sentences 21 times more frequently than blacks who kill blacks, as well as eight times more frequently than white people who kill blacks. The United States of America is recorded to have the highest rate of incarcerations among the principal industrial countries in the world. Blacks and Hispanics make up for 70 percent of the 3 million incarcerated people in the United States, despite their population being less than one-half of the American population. There are more young black people in American prisons than there are in colleges or universities. These findings add up to a large collection of evidence that points to the continued subjugation of Hispanic and black people. However, Alexander (2010) does not draw political conclusions regarding the disparity in the number of incarcerations based on race. The researcher limits himself to call for various basic reforms. These include the doing away or suspension of the death penalty, and halting the rising trend of charging youths as adults.
The pervasive character of discrimination in the criminal justice system points to the underlying problems in the American society. The presence of rampant discrimination within the justice system is inseparable from the rising class divide in the American society. This divide exists between the relatively wealthy and middle class people and the large number of working class people. This shows the failure of the capitalist government to give economic or social justice, even in the modern day economic expansion (Knowles, 1999). America might as well reconsider its capitalist ideas and favor of social reforms.
On the other hand, Jones (2000) argues that the high rate of black incarceration is not a proof for discrimination against blacks. It is only an indicator of the high crime rate in the society today. However, it is common for people to blame the prevalence of blacks and other minority people in prisons on a biased criminal justice system. For example, when he was a senator, Obama blamed the racial disparity in prisons on different treatment of minority communities and the white community by the police, prosecutors, as well as judges. He suggested that though blacks and whites might indulge in the same crime, the criminal justice system tended to be more aggressive on the former than the latter (Obama, 2008).
Alexander (2010) argues that the notion that police officers over-arrest blacks and pay no attention to white criminals is a myth. In reality, the race of a criminal reported by a crime victim matches arrest data. Research on robbery and assault in eight regions established parity between the rate of an assailant in victim identifications and arrests (Alexander, 2010). Other studies have backed this finding across a variety of crimes. There has been no plausible argument concerning why victims of crime would be discriminatory in their reports. Thus, the notion of high prevalence of a community in the prisons is just an indication of the high crime rate in the society and has nothing to do with race.
Besides, Alexander (2010) posits that claims that American prosecutors overcharge and judges over-sentence blacks lack plausible grounding. This suggests that the presence of a high number of blacks in prisons has nothing to do with biased prosecutors, as well as discriminatory juries and judges. A review of significant literature on charging and sentencing has established that profound racial differences in committing criminal offenses, and not racism, explain the trend of more blacks in prison when compared to whites. Besides, an analysis of felony convicts in Georgia established that blacks frequently had disproportionately lenient punishment (Alexander, 2010). Another study of 11,000 cases in California established that the racial differences in sentence length came from the black’s prior criminal records, as well as other legally relevant variables (Jones, 2000). Knowles (2010) surveyed felony cases in 75 urban areas and established that blacks had a lower chance of prosecution when compared to whites. The researcher also established that the judges were less likely to find blacks guilty during trials. The research further noted that, upon conviction, the basis of the sentencing was the gravity of their offences and criminal records rather than the race.
Jones (2000) notes that critics get used the unfair drug policies as an explanation for the skewed black incarceration rates. Such activists and academics posit that the battle against drugs is a battle on minorities. They put an emphasis on the federal crack cocaine penalties to justify their claims, a practice that provides misleading information concerning the race and incarnation debate. Crack is a form of cocaine that is easy to take, highly addictive, and extremely hazardous. The 1986 federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act stipulates a mandatory five year jail term if caught with five grams of crack cocaine. In comparison, powder cocaine traffickers need to have 500 grams in order to trigger the same minimum sentence of five years. Averagely, federal crack sentences are four to seven times longer when compared with powder sentences for the same amounts.
The media have targeted and overexposed the federal crack sentences because crack defendants are mostly black. In the year 2006, 82 percent of the people accused of possessing crack were black. Though, only 27 percent of powder cocaine defendants were black (Jones, 2000). The severity of crack rules and the fact of crack offenders being mostly black explain why a significant number of blacks are in prison. Besides, it is not cocaine alone with stiff penalties. The federal methamphetamine trafficking penalties are similar in severity to those of crack cocaine. However, there are selective media reporting to depict the criminal justice system as biased against blacks.
Though there are some points trying to demystify the influence of race in the American criminal justice system, other questions still should be answered. It is a fact that the American society has not outgrown fully the race question of the past century. Such issues contribute to the continued racial bias and suspicion in the society. Although the debate on the cause of racial bias in the system of the criminal justice might continue indefinitely, the fear, suspicion, as well as the absence of trust with which some minority communities view this system is not deniable. As a result, the American society should care about this continued bias in the system.
The society should care because the absence of trust significantly influences the ability of the Justice system to serve as well as protect the society (Jones, 2000). A principal symptom of the rising distrust is the fact that these communities have a reduced inclination of participating in the process of the criminal justice. For example, witnesses might hesitate to testify because of fear and distrust, presence of strong community ties, or an individual history of criminal behavior. Some people from the minority races might view law enforcement as the ultimate oppressor, which means as an adversary and not an ally. Such people might avoid reporting crimes, and they might opine that crimes should go unreported. They might avoid discussions with law enforcement officers as they believe the officers will come up with a way of acting against or intimidating members of the family or neighbors. This brings the issues of witness intimidation.
Witness intimidation is most prevalent in the crimes involving drugs and gangs (Alexander, 2010). Prosecutors, police officers, judges, as well as advocates have struggled with witness intimidation as the biggest hurdle that faces gang prosecution. The problem is widespread, rising and influencing the prosecution of crimes across America. A survey of 192 prosecutors established that witness and victim intimidation was a principal problem for 52 percent of prosecutors operating in large jurisdictions (consisting of more than 250,000), and 44 percent of prosecutors operating in relatively small jurisdictions (comprising of a population between 50,000 and 250,000). Witness intimidation can become so pervasive to the extent that case filings decrease while crimes increase.
The other sign of community distrust is that juries might avoid convicting criminals, even though there is overwhelming evidence. Instead, such juries would render their verdicts based on extralegal motivations. Such cases indicate the presence of jury nullification in the criminal justice system (Jones, 2000).
Lack of trust in the system of the criminal justice is specifically present in communities that have a significant number of immigrant residents. Research has revealed that recent immigrants did not report crimes frequently (Alexander, 2010). Law enforcement officials that act as immigration agents contribute to the perception of lack of trust, and, as a result, provide another reason why immigrant citizens fear and avoid contact with the criminal justice e system.
There is a need to deal with issues of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, whether real or perceived. Research has suggested various recommendations on how to deal with these issues. For instance, Ogletree (2010) posits that the criminal justice system officials should start with transparency in their practice. Besides, there should be cross-cultural training to police officers. In the courts, there should be the provision of cultural sensitivity trainings. Leaders should aim at having offices that mirror the ethnic composition of their jurisdiction. There should be frank discussions with leaders of the various communities in order to establish new trust in the system. In addition, the communities might come up with effective grievance and disciplinary procedures in the event of police misconduct.
On the same note, the various processes in the criminal justice system are useful to influence the needed change. For instance, the process of bargaining for plea needs modification in order to do away with discriminatory impacts so that there is the elimination of racial and ethnic bias. There should be a reexamination of sentencing provisions and a change of the jury selection practice in order to ensure there is proportionate representation of minorities. This could entail increasing the number of minority judges in order to convince the minority population that there is equal representation in the courts. There should also be steps to prevent the intimidation of witnesses, which might include high bails for known intimidators, hard line prosecution of intimidation reports, close contact with key witnesses, as well as increasing victim and witness assistance programs.
The criminal justice system needs remodeling in order to seal its evident cracks and flaws. There is a need to redesign the system when there is, for instance, inadequate resources to support a meaningful defense, or the over imprisonment of innocent people. These problems, among others, result from the faulty raw materials, as well as poor workmanship and construction. They result from poorly designed policies, rules, legislations, and regulations, like the compulsory sentencing enhancements that are irreducible. The criminal justice system should exercise leadership and get the voice to address its various problems. It must address the conscious and unconscious discrimination that is destroying the society in a variety of ways. Members of the criminal justice system, as well as the public must advocate for the perfect system envisaged in the American dream. The public must accept its social and ethical responsibilities. It must realize that there is a problem, seek to understand the problem, come up with a corrective action plan, carry out the plan, and evaluate its success or failure.