Racial Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System


Racial discrimination is a social injustice minorities have been subject to for many decades. In the United States, racial discrimination against the minorities in the criminal justice system triggers a range of societal issues that influence the life chances of the Hispanic and African-American groups. As of January 2013, nearly 2.3 million Americans were incarcerated. Out of this, most people in jails and prisons were disproportionately Latinos or African-American (PRESS TV, 2012). Since the Independence, critics of the United States criminal justice system have highlighted many cases and studies. For example, statistical studies or opinion polls indicate that more than adult African American males expect to be arrested at least once in their lifetime while only 15 percent of white adult males are ever arrested. As of may 2013, African-Americans made-up 12 percent of the United States population, but here were over 40 percent of all inmates. This essay outlines some of the aspects and evidence of racial bias in the criminal justice system.


Racial Discrimination in the American Criminal Justice System


The bias in the American criminal justice system is first reported in the initial stages of the system, which includes the investigation and arrest of the suspected individuals by law enforcement personnel (American Civil Liberties Union, 2013). These law enforcement personnel discriminately target the minorities as criminal suspects, which eventually skews the racial population of the people arrested, charged, incarcerated or convicted (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2013). One of the key problems ailing the U.S. criminal justice system is racial profiling (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2013). This involves the identification of criminal suspects on the basis race or accent. According to Cole, Smith, & DeJong (2013), racial profiling is pervasive because the law enforcement agents enjoy a large amount of discretion as to who they consider as a suspect. For example, in Baltimore, African-American motorists are discriminately stopped for minor traffic offenses because they are believed to be more likely to be engage in more serious criminal activity than whites (Saad, 2011). This results in a large percentage of innocent African-Americans and other minority drivers such as Puerto Ricans, Colombians and Cubans to be illegally subjected to the humiliation and hassle of law enforcement agents ‘questions. This also leads in a disproportionate percentage of minorities being arrested and convicted for non-violent crimes, which would not have been established if not for racially driven traffic stops (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2013; Brewer & Heitzeg, 2008). The big question is whether these statistics or polls have other causes or are as a result of a racist criminal justice system, or other confounding variables such as poverty. Politicians, social scientists and news analysts have debated over this question for decades. In 1975, a criminologist Robert Staples highlighted in his controversial article titled “White Racism, Black Crime, and American Justice,” that there was racial discrimination in the United Stated criminal justice system (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2013). He argued that the criminal justice system is made up of some white men cartels meant to protect the interests of their race and discriminate the other races. The article further charged that, the legal system was characterized by biased jurors, second-rate legal help for non-white defendants and racial discrimination in sentencing. This paper argues that racial discrimination is evident in the US criminal justice system. To this end, this paper presents evidence pointing out the existence of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

For decades, criminal justice critics have cited instances of the racial discrimination in the same system. In contrast to this perception, a sociologist William Wilbanks strongly rejected the notion after reviewing various studies statistical studies about racial bias in the criminal justice system. This was presented in his book titled ‘The Myth of a racial Justice System’. He focused on the disparity between whites and African Americans in imprisonment, parole, probation, arrest rates and other sections of the judicial systems (Wilbanks, 1987). Wilbanks (1987) argued that the disparities were as a result of other factors not linked to racial discrimination. These included poverty, negligence and defendants prior criminal records. Other researchers, too, have furthered Willbanks’ (1987) observation and suggested that the perceived disparity in the legal system have more to do with the poverty levels than race (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2013). Willbanks argued that lawlessness and crimes such as assault, drug trafficking, burglary and robbery, popular in the crime news, are often committed by street families or individuals with poor backgrounds. In 1990s, this argument was supported by the fact that the drop in poverty levels was also marked with reduced crime rates. A correlation between crime and poverty has long been noted (Quigley, 2012). After the First World War, most whites were poor, and a greater percentage of the street crimes were committed by the whites in the U.S (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2013).  During that period, there were approximately 80 percent of whites in prison. The subject of poverty and negligence may well account to the perceived inequalities in the criminal justice system; however, as time went by, racial injustices unfolded (MacDonald, 2008).

A study by the Rand Institute in 1983 indicated that African American defendants were treated more harshly than the whites (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2013). However, the research did not outline the cause of the inequalities. The researchers could not explain why African-American criminals accounted for increasing disproportionate percentage of the street families and crimes in the United States (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2013). According to a 14 May 2013 article titled ‘US criminal justice system race-based’ by the PRESS TV, a Pan-African News Wire Editor, Abayomi Azikiwe, pointed out that African- Americans were being “disproportionately represented” in prisons, jails and other criminal justice correctional facilities in the United States (PRESS-TV, 2013). He added that reports indicated a surge in the number of African-American arrests over the past four decades. A study by the American Civil liberties Union (ACLU) in California indicated that African-Americans were three times more likely to be arrested that any other race. Azikiwe pointed out that statistical figure indicated how national oppression and racial discrimination was deeply rooted in the legal system. In addition, a report on the inequalities in drug arrests by the Human Rights Watch indicated that African-Americans were arrested for drug offenses at rates 2-11 times higher than the whites (PRESS-TV, 2013). This indicated that the United States criminal justice system was a race biased institution that targeted and punished African-Americans in much more aggressive manner than white people.

According to Brewer & Heitzeg (2008), African-Americans were frequently illegally excluded in from the criminal jury service. Moreover, the American Bar Association highlighted that only 5 percent of criminal cases are tried, and 95 percent are plea bargained (PRESS-TV, 2013). This point out those most African-American defendants does not get a trial. Consequently, they plead guilty even when innocent. The Sentencing Project released a report, which indicated that 60 percent of the people in the United States with life sentences are non-white (Ostertag & Armaline, 2011). As of May 2013, the African American juveniles made 16 percent of the United States population. These juveniles accounted for 28 percent of juvenile arrest and 37 percent of the American youths in juvenile jails. 58 percent of the African-American juveniles were sent to adult prisons.

In October 2012, Sara Flounders, a famous political analyst, and the International Action Center from New York actively criticized the use of excessive brutality and racism by the US police forces when enforcing the law (Constitutional Rights Foundation, 2013). This was in reference to a video that had been posted online showing a police officer brutally striking a woman across the face. She pointed out that the practice was common in major cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. On a different account, the Maryland State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on civil rights raised the civil concerns about the racial based inequalities nationally and in Maryland (Quigley, 2012). According to the committees’ findings, 84 percent of the adults held in Baltimore’s jail system were African-American even though they constituted only 64 percent of the city’s general population. Some people may argue that the higher percentage is because more African Americans commit a crime than whites (Saad, 2011). However, the committee pointed out that whites and African-Americans used illegal drugs at nearly the same rate. In addition, young whites in Baltimore City use drugs, such as heroin and consume alcohol at higher rates than their peers. These facts raised civil concern because the figures should be rational. According to a national study, the discrepancy in these figures is attributed to the incorrect perception of African–Americans to be more responsible or adult like for their actions than youth from other races (Prison-Activists, 2005).


From the evidence presented in this paper, there is no doubt that racial discrimination exists in the US criminal justice system. Most of the racial discrimination studies with respect to the criminal justice system should completely consider all of the legitimate factors  that might that determine how appropriately depict and convey the statistical figures within the legal system on racial, age and gender basis.  In consolidating all the factors across various jurisdictions, the right data and impression would be communicate to the public to earn the desired trust. This is subject to the fact that America’s races are spread differently across jurisdictions. It should also be noted that decisions in the judicial system are based on the evidence availed proving guilt, prior criminal record of the defendant, and the gravity of the case.  Most criminal justice administrators, academics and policy makers points racial bias in the criminal justice system. Therefore, the wide consensus about the existence of racial bias in the criminal justice system should be addressed to win the confidence of the minorities on this institution.









American Civil Liberties Union. (2013). Race and Criminal Justice. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from American Civil Liberties Union: http://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/race-and-criminal-justice

Brewer, R. M., & Heitzeg, N. (2008). The Racialization of Crime and Punishment:Criminal Justice, Color-Blind Racism, and the Political Economy of the Prison Industrial Complex. American Behavioral Scientist , 51 (5), 625-644.

Cole, G. F., Smith, C. E., & DeJong, C. (2013). The American System of Criminal Justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Constitutional Rights Foundation. (2013). Does the Criminal Justice System Discriminate Against African-Americans? Retrieved May 14, 2013, from Constitutional Rights Foundation: http://www.crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-9-1-c-does-the-criminal-justice-system-discriminate-against-african-americans

MacDonald, H. (2008). Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist? The City Journal , 1-7.

Ostertag, S. F., & Armaline, W. T. (2011). Image Isn’t Everything: Contemporary Systemic Racism and Antiracism in the Age of Obama. Humanity & Society , 261-289.

PRESS TV. (2012, October 3). United States police force rely on brutality, racism: Analyst. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from PRESS TV: http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2012/10/03/264797/us-police-rely-brutality-racism/

PRESS-TV. (2013, May 14). US criminal justice system race-based. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from Press TV: http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/05/14/303371/us-criminal-justice-system-racebased/

Prison-Activists. (2005, June). How is the Criminal Justice System Racist – Political Research. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from Prison Activists: http://www.prisonactivist.org/factsheets/racism.pdf

Quigley, W. P. (2012). Racism: The Crime in Criminal Justice. Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law (13), 417-429.

Saad, L. (2011, July 11). Americans Express Mixed Confidence in Criminal Justice System. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/148433/Americans-Express-Mixed-Confidence-Criminal-Justice-System.aspx

Wilbanks, W. (1987). The Myth of a racial Justice System. New York: Brooks/Cole.


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