Race and the American Justice System

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The American justice system is an example of two systems—state and federal—working together under federalism to deal with civil and criminal cases. For criminal cases, the system determines whether or not a crime or case is tried by the state or by the federal government. Both systems supposedly operate under the presumption of innocence, meaning a defendant is presumed innocent and the burden of proof lies with the prosecution, but fact of the matter is that racial discrimination literally colors this presumption of innocence so that minorities, especially black Americans, are convicted and imprisoned at a much higher rate than white Americans. 

A report from The Sentencing Project, a group of criminal justice experts and leaders, identifies the following reasons for racial disparity in the criminal justice system: crime rates, unequal access to resources, legislative decisions, and overt racial bias. (Sentencing Project, 2008, pp. 5–9). To understand the scope of the problem, one needs only look at the numbers. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2008), “The imprisonment rates indicate that about 0.5% of all white males, more than 3.0% of all black males, and 1.2% of all Hispanic males were imprisoned in 2011” (p. 2). Furthermore, “In 2011, blacks and Hispanics were imprisoned at higher rates than whites in all age groups for both male and female inmates. Among prisoners ages 18 to 19, black males were imprisoned at more than 9 times the rate of white males” (p. 2). Understanding the causes for this disparity is more complicated. 

It is important to make the distinction between arrest rates and crime rates because many crimes go unreported. African Americans are arrested and sentenced more often than whites, which can lead to the spurious conclusion that African Americans are more criminally inclined. However, The Sentencing Project notes, “Arrest rates are essentially an indicator of (1) police activity in clearing reported crimes, and (2) crimes police observe themselves. Thus, arrest figures reflect the frequency with which crimes are reported, police decisions regarding offenses on which they will concentrate their attention and resources, and the relative vulnerability of certain crimes to arrest” (Sentencing Project p. 5). In other words, police policy and judgment, as well as the nature of the crime, is a large factor in arrest rates. 

Unequal access to resources is a socioeconomic factor that has consequences for the justice system. Class problems such as unemployment rates, lack of education opportunities, lack of community resources, and lack of access to health care or drug treatment facilities or care exacerbates circumstances so that “inequitable access to resources can result in very different outcomes between middle-class and low-income individuals even though they may share similar behavioral problems” (Sentencing Project, p. 6). For example, drug addiction is not something unique to one race. However, a person addicted to drugs in an affluent community may have more access to resources such as rehab treatment, whereas someone in a poorer community without access might be more likely to engage in criminal activity, particularly the purchase and use of illegal substances.

Legislative action at the state and federal level has also contributed to the racial disparity of incarceration in the country, and “many of these laws have a disproportionate impact on minority communities, which could have been foreseen before the laws were passed” (Sentencing Project, p. 7). Drug policy, such as the penalty between possession of cocaine versus crack, repeat offender policy, such as three-strikes laws, and a preference to incarcerate rather than try alternate forms of rehabilitation have created a systematic cycle of targeting minorities. Again, drawing from the hypothetical example earlier, a person in a more affluent neighborhood caught buying cocaine would receive a lesser penalty than a person buying crack cocaine. Rehabilitation for drug addiction would be an option for the cocaine offender, while a lack of resources could prevent the crack offender. The crack user would then have a higher likelihood of repeat offenses, all of which send him or her to federal prison for failed rehabilitation rather than try an alternative form of treatment. Smarter legislation could potentially address some of these issues to at least level the playing field when it comes to potential rehabilitation and keeping people out of the prison system.

Racial profiling and bias are also present because “so long as racism exists within society at large, it will be found within the criminal justice system. Racism fuels the overt bias which can show in the language, attitudes, conduct, assumptions, strategies and policies of criminal justice agencies” (Sentencing Project, p. 9). This issue is a cultural and political debate, but for people looking objectively at improving the criminal justice system, this issue must be addressed because more blacks are convicted and in some cases, the prejudice protects people who do not identify as black against crimes in which a black person was the victim. The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case has raised issues of prejudice. According to MSNBC: “Had Martin been a white female and Zimmerman a black male, the media narrative regarding the case and the verdict would have likely differed. Statistical data supports this claim. Several Florida and national studies, for example, demonstrate that self-defense claims result in more acquittals or dismissals when the victims are black” (Hutchinson 2013). 

The combination of policy, practice, and unequal socioeconomic factors has created a justice system that is broken. Given that nearly 1 million of the nearly 2.3 million inmates in American prisons are black, it is clear that the problem of racial disparity is out of control. In order to make the presumption of innocence and the chance at true rehabilitation possible, the problem of racial disparity needs to be solved. 


Hutchinson, D. (2013, July 15). Race, justice and Trayvon Martin — MSNBC. MSNBC. Retrieved from http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/07/15/race-justice-and-trayvon-martin/

The Sentencing Project. (2008). Reducing racial disparity in the criminal justice system: A manual for practitioners and policymakers. Retrieved from http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/rd_reducingracialdisparity.pdf

United States Department of Justice. Office of Justice Programs. (2011, December). Bureau of Justice Statistics. Prisoners in 2011 by E. Ann Carson and W. J. Sabol.  (Research in brief) Retrieved from the Bureau of Justice Statistics Website: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p11.pdf