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Racial Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System


Most individuals believe that racial or ethnic discrimination is illegal and undermines the concept of equality. A lengthy history of racial discrimination against African Americans can be traced back to enslavement and continues today in the form of legislation and court judgements that uphold the practice. According to studies, there is racial prejudice in the judicial system. The authors uses census data and sampling for the research to come to conclusion. Research have isolated and evaluated several decision-making stages within the criminal justice system, including arrest, bail, conviction, and sentence, to determine whether there is racial prejudice. Racial prejudice in the criminal justice system is still prevalent. Despite the fact that the majority of studies reveals that there is no systemic racial discrimination.


Positive discrimination or ethnicity, and per the population of individuals, is immoral and breaches the concept of equality. Those who are equal should be treated as such, and race should have no bearing on how they are treated. It is only acceptable to treat someone differently when there is a factual difference that justifies it. It’s impossible to know what “equality” means in a certain context unless it’s used. Equitable access to public office, chances for growth in the job and equal treatment under the law are seen as examples of equality by politicians.

The word “race” is used to describe a collection of genetically distinct individuals who have a common ancestor (American Anthropological Association 1997: 2). As a result of this assumption, the concept of race and the belief that individuals “belong” to a certain race goes back to the 19th century. Societal usage of race as a sociological concept despite its lack of biological relevance persists. Slavery solidified the notion of race in American society by reinforcing the idea that certain races were better than others (Banks and Eberhard 1998: 58). “Jim Crow” legislation (e.g., a person’s categorization as white or black) enacted after the Civil War show how important racism has been in defining one’s legal rights and obligations in the United States.

Historical context

Slaves were treated as property of their owners from the beginning of slavery in the early 1700s until 1865, with the belief that they were inherently inferior and unequal individuals. To compensate for the loss of many of their basic freedoms, they were enslaved. Due to the laws already in force, they were also subjected to severe treatment. Slavery was abolished and equal protection under the law was established for all people during the American Civil War. Despite the fact that numerous states established Jim Crow laws, which successfully perpetuated forms of racial segregation in the legal, social, and economic spheres, prejudice remained after the war. To keep segregated races apart, the notion of “equality under the law” was used, and African Americans also weren’t allowed to vote or negotiate deals.

While Jim Crow laws were still being enforced by the courts and the police, African Americans were at risk of violent assaults and practices like lynching. Between the 1880s and the early 1900s, over 3,000 African Americans were lynched. There was little accountability for the perpetrators of these murders. Since the start of the twentieth century, African Americans have had legal safeguards. The Supreme Court deemed “separate but equal” unlawful in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which had been preceded by additional civil rights initiatives in the mid-twentieth century.

As a result, today’s black American community is diverse and includes people of all ethnic origins. People from Jamaica, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Somalia, and other African and West Indies countries, each of whom has a distinct culture that differs from that of African Americans, are among those who have immigrated to the United States. Nonetheless, discriminatory views against persons of various skin tones continue to be voiced, despite this variety.

It is more usual for black people to become victims of violent crime than it is for other ethnic groups. The risks of being murdered are more than seven times larger for black people than for white people, and they are nearly twice as likely as white people to be robbed, raped, or otherwise harmed (Egharevba, 2016). For the year 2004 census, black people were responsible for 46.2% of all homicides, 53% of all robberies, 32.9 percent of all rapes, and 33.2 percent of all assaults. Despite the fact that black individuals make up less than 13% of the population, the Bureau of Justice reports that 45 percent of state and federal inmates were black in 2002, and much more than 40% in 2004. Despite accounting for just 0.9 percent of the total population of the United States in the 2000 census, American Indians accounted for 3 percent of all incarcerated individuals and over 16 percent of all violent criminals in 2001.

Does the Criminal Justice System Discriminatory base on Race?

According to the study’s conclusions, racial discrimination exists in the criminal justice system. According to the Christopher Commission, an independent inquiry of the Los Angeles Police Department, officers used excessive force, which was worsened by racism and prejudice. 7000 Los Angeles police officers were chosen at random and asked whether they believed their colleagues had a prejudice towards people of color. More than a quarter of those questioned said this bias may lead to excessive use of force.

The panel also listened to LAPD radio broadcasts and found disturbing and regular racial remarks, usually made while discussing automobile chases or assaults on suspects that were being made (Baker & Baker, 1994). The Los Angeles Superior Court brought this case after witness testimony revealed that LAPD officers had verbally assaulted people of color, taken into custody African Americans and Latinos who only vaguely matched descriptions of subject matters, and used obtrusive and dehumanizing strategies against minority groups in minority neighborhoods. Racism was also evident in the acts of racial minority cops. These officers were bullied and were exposed to racist insults on the radio broadcasts of their department.

“In the tribunals of New York State, there seem to be two justice institutions at work; one for whites, and a completely different one for minorities and the poor,” a panel of judges, lawyers, and academics determined in 1991. Racial prejudice, according to the conference, is to responsible for inequality and inequities in therapy (Baker & Baker, 1994). Racist graffiti was sprayed on the courtroom walls, and court employees were hostile to persons of color. Minority trials may run as little as a few minutes, showing a factory-style judicial system and the frequent feature of black defendants outside of New York City getting their jurisdiction to hear by an all-white jury.

A variety of studies have been conducted to determine if the US judicial system is subject to racial discrimination (Egharevba, 2016). The most powerful decision factors in the American criminal justice system were examined in this study. Despite the presence of racial prejudice within the criminal justice system, William Wilbanks (1987) and Joan Petersilia (1983) contend that racial discrimination is not systemic in the criminal justice system (Blumstein 1993; DiIulio 1996; Russell-Brown 1998; Tony 1995). Research, on the other hand, suggests that racial bias may exist at many phases of the program’s judgment process (Wilbanks 1987).

According to Petersilia (1983), racial inequities in the criminal system have evolved as a consequence of policies being implemented without a thorough examination of their impact on minority populations. While the case processing system was supposed to treat all offenders the same, she observed that some criminals were handled differently. The following are two key areas where we discovered considerable racial disparities: Minority groups were more likely to be incarcerated to prison rather than imprisonment after being convicted of a crime, while being more likely to be incarcerated in the first place (Baker & Baker, 1994). To see whether there is racial discrimination in the judicial system, researchers separated and examined different decision-making phases, involving apprehension, bail, conviction, and punishment. In the next sections, these decision-making aspects will be discussed.

a) Random sampling on Interactions between the police and the public and arrests by the police

Research examining how police officers utilize their authority to oppress minorities, regardless of their race, has been a major focus of policing studies. Observing how white police officers handle black and non-black persons is one approach to examine this issue (R. Brown and Frank 2006: 104). In Cincinnati, where whites made up roughly 65 percent of the population and blacks made up 35 percent, researchers examined 614 contacts between police and suspects between 1997 and 1998 and found that 104 individuals were detainedApproximately 18% of white officer-suspect confrontations resulted in an arrest, whereas only 15% of black lieutenant interactions resulted in an arrest. When it came to stopping black people, cops were far more likely to do so. Disrespect for the police increases a person’s risk of arrest, according to the researchers. For example, arrests were more likely to be made when a black police officer interacted with a white suspect.

b) Bail

Prosecutors and judges may decide whether offenders should be freed on bail based on risk to the community and likelihood of escape (University of Toronto. Centre of Criminology, 1995). To assess the accused’s likelihood of fleeing, the court considers his or her occupation, marital status, and period of residency in the region.

Race should not play a role in bail applications when the danger to the community and prior court appearances are taken into account. Race, on the other hand, has a significant impact on bail judgments. Defendants with a low educational level and affluence were less likely to receive bonded and so more going to occur onerous bail conditions, that according Albonetti and colleagues (1989). They also indicated that when it came to bond applications, blacks were held to higher standards than whites. Bail was set at a higher amount for whites than for blacks, notwithstanding the crime’s seriousness and its consequences. White people are treated better on bail, even when the statistics shows that they are handled differently. It is important to note that bail applications will not be based on race, and minorities are likely to be seen as less trustworthy and more aggressive than whites. Despite other variables, a higher rate of bail denial.

c) Conviction and Sentencing

According to Petersilia and Witbank’s, there is no evidence of racial discrimination at the time of criminal conviction (Petersilia 1983; Witbank’s 1987), and Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen (1997) agree that there is no evidence of racial prejudice in the aggregate. On the other hand, Sentencing research has piqued the curiosity of those investigating racial inequities. According to a survey of multiple studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, the direct impact of race on punishment was nearly abolished when prior criminal records were taken into consideration (Hagan and Bumiller 1983). There were racial disparities in the duration and severity of previous criminal records as a consequence of the overwhelming population of blacks in the judicial system. However, concerns have been raised about the possibility that additional characteristics that disfavor minorities, such as Race, might interact with sentencing decisions, affecting sentence decisions based on Race.

Research on sentencing in the late 1970s and 1980s focused on racial discrimination by looking at the perspective of the victim rather than the criminal. They took new crimes like drug manufacturing into account while compiling their data. In comparison to their white colleagues, lower-ranking black drug traffickers have been shown to be handled more leniently. Because they are believed to be causing even more suffering on the already beleaguered non-white community, main black drug traffickers are more brutally punished, according to Ruth Peterson and John Hagan (1984). Overall, the research conducted during this time period seems to show certain instances of prejudice, particularly in specific places.

Three-strike law included in the determinable punishment. Following a series of statistical tests, researchers found that the racial disparity in sentence length was not due to any underlying bias (Klein, Petersilia, and Turner 1990). It’s also been suggested that prosecutorial discretion is skewed. A variety of attempts have been made to determine the appropriate limits of prosecutorial authority when imposing punishments. In Los Angeles County, black and Hispanic persons were found to be considerably more likely than white people to be convicted. (Spohn, Gruhl, and Welch 1987). According to the Supreme Court, “arbitrary criteria like race, religion, or other categories” should not be used to prosecute (Walker et al. 2000: 140).

d) Imprisonment Disparities

At the end of 2009, there were 1,613,740 persons jailed in the US, divided between state and federal prisons. According to Minton (2011), 12.8 million people were jailed in the 12 months ending June 30, 2010. In mid-2010, the average daily prison population was 748,728 (down from 767,434), with a 242 daily incarceration rate (a decline from 767,434 in 2009). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 44.3 percent of all inmates were white as of June 30, 2010.

Compared to white non-Hispanic men (487 per 100,000), the rate of black convicts serving terms of more than one year in state or federal prisons was 3,119 per 100,000, six times greater than that of Hispanic males (1,193 per 100,000). (West et al. 2010: 9). There were 1,987 white females, 1,356 Hispanic females, and a total of 703 black females imprisoned during the period. More men than women ended up in jail at 949 for every 100,000 people. According to a Pew study released in February 2008, one out of every 100 Americans is currently incarcerated, and this number is much higher for some racial and ethnic groupings. According to the paper, for instance,

Stratum Rate per 100000 males Rate per 100000 female
whites 487 50
blacks 3119 142
Hispanic 1193 74

e) Death Penalty Disparities

Researchers observed that a person’s race effects the prosecutor’s choice to pursue capital sentence and how it is carried out. In the case of the death sentence, it would seem that race has a significant influence on prosecutors’ and jurors’ readiness to pursue the sentence, as well as the inclination of victims’ family to embrace the penalty.

Offenders convicted of killing white victims, whether black or white, have the greatest danger of the death penalty, whereas those guilty of killing black victims, whether black or white, face the lowest. According to a study of all death-eligible killings committed in a California county from 1977 to 1986, evidence of prejudice against black perpetrators is mirrored by evidence of discrimination against Hispanic victims.

Inmates under sentence of death, by Race

Race  Males sentenced Females sentenced Prisoners executed
Total 3483 66 52
white 1738 42 24
Hispanic 346 4
Black 1302 15 21
Hispanic 10 0
Other races 73 3 0


Racism is still prevalent in the law enforcement system in the United States. Although experts feel that prejudice happens at certain times in the decision-making process, research reveals that there is no systemic racial discrimination. Discrimination based on race and ethnicity is said to be common in both the system and outside of it, according to some. Most individuals thus think that acts of discrimination are committed on a regular basis, and that these actions may be motivated by deeply held cultural and social prejudices towards persons of different races. It is possible for these complicated and subtle manifestations to exist, making it difficult to capture them using traditional research approaches. Public perceptions of the criminal justice system’s operations are strongly linked to instances of discrimination in the workplace, and this is an issue that has to be addressed. What matters is that minority believe the system is unjust because it discriminates against them, regardless of the outcomes of research studies to the contrary. As a result, people in positions of power in the system must act ethically and strive to eliminate any evidence of institutional racism from their judgement call processes.


Baker, D., & Baker, D. N. (1994). Reading racism and the criminal justice system. Canadian Scholars Press.

Egharevba, S. (2016). Police brutality, racial profiling, and discrimination in the criminal justice system. IGI Global.

Hylton, J. H. (2001). 9. The justice system and Canada’s Aboriginal peoples: The persistence of racial discrimination. Crimes of Colour, 139-156.

Justice on trial: Racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. (2000). DIANE Publishing.

McCarter, S. A. (2018). Racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Encyclopedia of Social Work.

Million, J. D. (2003). Undefined. Greenwood Publishing Group.

University of Toronto. Centre of Criminology. (1995). Racism in the criminal justice system: A bibliography.

Wilbanks, W. (1987). The myth of a racist criminal justice system. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Appendices 1

Number of Sentenced Prisoners IN USA, by Race, hispanic,Sex, and age , Dec, 2009
Male Female
Age Total White Black Hispanic Total White Black Hispanic
Total 949 482 3,117 1,134 66 51 132 73
18-19 526 242 1512 781 23 17 42 24
20-24 1874 886 5339 2365 109 86 186 124
25-29 2211 1001 6927 2686 149 115 287 164
30-34 2348 1204 7721 2481 188 155 361 178
35-39 2226 1220 7490 2305 206 164 426 189
40-44 1949 1121 6447 2054 172 131 360 171
45-49 1219 684 4063 1520 94 67 205 107
50-54 712 408 2345 1073 45 32 101 60
55-59 424 272 1291 732 22 18 42 29
60-64 251 180 701 490 11 9 22 22
65 or older 94 69 287 184 3 2 6 4


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