Racial Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System: The Plight of African Americans

By: Tamena Jones

In the United States, there is a social injustice for African Americans within the criminal justice system. The inequalities are displayed  through bias and discrimination which places African Americans at a disadvantage. This issue persists both past and presently and does not get the attention that it deserves. 

History of Mistreatment of African Americans in the Criminal Justice System

In 1910, African-Americans were 11% of the U.S population; but were 31% of the prison population. Lynchings and judicial bigotry occurred. Racial minorities in general were generally tried by all white juries. "Sentencing laws were discriminatory with the harshest sanctions given to blacks who victimized whites (American Sociological Association)". 

"People of color are more likely to become entangled in the criminal justice system (American Press)". African Americans are victimized more than other racial ethnic groups through:

1. Excessive police force

2. Stopped, questioned and frisked

3. Pulled over for humiliating searches

4. Arrests

5. Pre-trial Proceedings

6. Trials, Selection of Juries and Sentencing

Does the fate of African American youth lie in the hands of the Criminal Justice System?

According to the American Sociological Association, "there is a consensus among researchers that most widespread forms of racial discrimination in the American Justice system occurs in the treatment of juvenile offenders". In the year 2002, African Americans age 10 to 17 had an arrest rate double that of of juveniles who were white. At the arrest stage of African American youth, they are more likely to be detained and rarely released outright. 

Why is the rate of crime high for African Americans?

"1 in every 10 Black men in his thirties is in prison or jail or on any given day (Sentencing Project)". There has to be an explanation for the prevalence of crimes being committed by African Americans. 

  • African Americans are known to live in disadvantaged and/or urban communities
  • Unemployment and Poverty
  • Lack of Education
  • Stereotyping: when a person or group of people are generalized due to certain traits or characteristics with no regard to individual differences (Although there are many African-American men who commit crimes, the ones who do not engage in criminal activity should not be prejudged or labeled". 
  • Statistics being sensationalized in the media and other public forums

African Americans Are Easily Convicted in the Courtroom

Implicit Associations

How the brain takes in, sorts, synthesizes, and responds to an enormous amount information the an individual faces on a daily basis

"It also provides intriguing insights into how and why individuals develop stereotypes and biases, often without knowing they exist (National Center for State Courts)".

When judges and prosecutors are handling cases where African Americans are the defendant, it is matter of whether or not they have the ability to to be fair and objective. In the event it is more common for African Americans to commit certain crimes, how do we know that sentencing is being based on only the facts of the case and without bias? For example, aggressiveness is associated with African American men. Does this cause a judge or jury to view them as automatically being the aggressor or offender when being tried? 

"People of color, particularly African American males, face longer sentences for than their White or Non-Hispanic counterparts for similar crimes (American Progress)".

The United States criminal justice system is divided. One system is at a advantage which is for those who are wealthy. The other system is for minorities and those who are poverty stricken and contributes to the growing rate of African Americans who are imprisoned. 

If you're African American and poor, you don't stand a chance

A wealthy White male who is charged with a criminal offense will enter plea bargain and there is a higher likelihood of a positive outcome due to his ability to afford private counsel. His financial status allows to him to have access to resources which results in justice being served as he will be given the minimum sentence or charges could be dropped all together in exchange for information or other forms of cooperation.

An indigent African American male also has the ability to plea bargain, but the outcome is the complete opposite. Many African American men will agree to a plea bargain and admit to a crime even when they know they're innocent. They are often coerced by public defenders to take plea bargains as it is a way to avoid a trial and to score a conviction for the prosecution. Another reason African American men will settle for a plea bargain as opposed to taking their case to trial is because they are intimidated by the jury and don't want to risk getting the maximum sentence if the jury finds them guilty. 

Another mishap for African American men in the courtroom is two processes:

1. Vertical Overcharging- charging a single offense at the most serious level possible to maximize the state's advantage in plea negotiations

2. Horizonal Overcharging- multiple count indictments to maximize the state's advantage in plea negotiations

African Americans are often wrongfully convicted. "Cross-racial identifications, forced confessions, all White juries and blatant racism has led to the wrongful convictions of countless innocent Black people (Innocence Project)." 

Although some of these convictions are overturned, how do you repay a person after taking 25 years away from their life for a crime that they did not commit?

African Americans Are Not Always Safe While in Police Custody

Will reform take place in the near future where African Americans will no longer be discriminated against?

American Sociological Association. (2007, September). Race, Ethnicity and The Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from http://www.asanet.org/images/press/docs/pdf/ASARaceCrime.pdf

Colarossi, J. (2015, October 01). The Worst Cases of Police Brutality In September. Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/10/01/3706973/people-killed-police-september/

D'Amico, D. J. (2013). Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hfie5bHG1OA

Federal Bureau Investigation. (2014). Crime in the United States in 2013. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/tables/table-43

Learn Liberty. (2013, January 14). Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from http://www.learnliberty.org/videos/racial-inequality-in-the-criminal-justice-system/

National Center for State Courts. (2012, March). Addressing Implicit Bias in the Courts. Retrieved from http://www.ncsc.org/~/media/Files/PDF/Topics/Gender and Racial Fairness/IB_Summary_033012.ashx

PBS News Hour. (2016, February 11). Sanders and Clinton address African-American incarceration in U.S. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aokcw_vjXZc

The Innocence Project. (2013, February 28). African American Wrongful Convictions Throughout History - Innocence Project. Retrieved from http://www.innocenceproject.org/african-american-wrongful-convictions-throughout-history/

The Sentencing Project. (2013, August 31). Shadow Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System | The Sentencing Project. Retrieved from http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/shadow-report-to-the-united-nations-human-rights-committee-regarding-racial-disparities-in-the-united-states-criminal-justice-system/

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Public - 5/19/16, 6:41 PM