Criminal Justice Myth: Racial Bias

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The criminal justice system depends on impartiality and the trust of the public to remain effective.  One of the greatest threats to public confidence in the legal system is the myth of racial bias.  This is a complex issue that has been debated and investigated for generations and the findings indicate that while there are significant issues of race associated with crime, the courts themselves are perpetrators of prejudice.

While there can be no question that minorities do suffer societal persecution, it should not be assumed that that persecution translates to prosecution and sentencing.  Sampson’s (1997) analysis argued this point by demonstrating that the higher representation of minorities in the criminal justice system is caused by effects that happened before the courts.  This analysis examines many popularly recognized incidents of racism in crime-response including the high proportion of police shootings involving black suspects and pretrial decisions regarding bail that seem to persecute minority offenders.  Sampson (1997) traces the causes of these and other examples backward from the courts to identify their actual roots.  In the case of black suspects being shot more often than others, it was also found that there was a significantly higher proportion of black perpetrators of armed crime - especially in the state of Tennessee (Sampson, 1997, p 344).  However, this did not prove true in every location studied.  The ultimate conclusion was that context dictated police behavior as often as actual demographic data and incidents of racism do in fact happen in police responses.  Police response is not part of the court system, however, and should not be used as indicator of court bias.

One of the most significant factors informing the pretrial determination issue as well as virtually every other component of perceived prejudice in the courts is socioeconomic status.  There is no doubt that minorities are persecuted in many ways by power structures outside the court system and conflict theory, the theory that has previously been used to argue court bias by association, also explains why more minorities become associated with criminal activity.  The court looks at socioeconomic factors when determining whether an offender is to receive bail or be held before trial and, in many African American communities, minorities have poor credentials in this regard (Sampson, 1997, p 345).  This is not an example of racial prejudice by the court, but rather a societal prejudice that is again supported by conflict theory.  Because minorities suffer prejudice in everyday society and often have fewer opportunities for improvement of their conditions, criminal activity seems a more viable recourse.

The courts should not be blamed for the prejudicial bias of society at large.  Minorities are more often forced, as a group, into desperate situations than white citizens are.  While efforts are constantly being made to equalize opportunities, conflict theory’s premise that the powerful remain in power cannot be ignored.  The myth of racial bias in the courts, however, only hurts the process of equalization because it distracts from the real sources of the problem.  It also hurts the criminal justice system itself because it diminishes citizen confidence.


Sampson, R. J, & Lauritsen, J. L. (1997). Racial and ethnic disparities in crime and criminal justice in the United States. Crime and Justice, 21, 311-374.