The book The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity and Crime by authors Samuel Walker, Cassia Spohn, and Miriam DeLone cover a plethora of ideas, analysis, and data supporting its title. An individual’s presumed race and ethnicity predetermines how society and the justice system will perceive them as it relates to crime. The authors imply that where people reside, what neighbourhood they grew up in, will directly impact their criminology footprint. Also discussed, is the inequality of how each state has its own set of laws pertaining to discrimination and the resulting penalty. This paper will discuss the inequities placed on African Americans in certain geographical areas and how it can lead to incarceration, and also America’s involvement and participation as an advocate for incarceration.
Not only is the color of justice defined by ethnicity, but where America’s minorities reside also play a role in their future in criminal justice systems. Large urban areas in western states and in the Midwest and poor areas in southern states are locations which have some of the largest prisons populations. Discrimination is already an inherent fact deeply rooted in America’s landscape. It is implicated in the justice system in this country. Each state has free reign to interpret federal law as they see fit, and is why sentencing in some states for the same crime vary dramatically. This should not be the case. When poverty, under education, and other societal ills are added to a high profile geographical location and minority discrimination in the criminal justice system, this creates a recipe for the injustice of mass incarceration.
In The Color of Justice, the authors not only consider African Americans in their analysis, but also Hispanics, Asians, Arab Americans and Native Americans. Each group has its own set of discrimination tactics that are unique to their minority status. For example, Arab Americans since 911 have to worry about being seen as non-American or anti-American. They have to worry about being depicted as a terrorist, which is a bias and unfair assumption. According to the United States Census Bureau the population breakdown is as follows: 63% White, 16.9% Hispanic or Latino, Black or African American 13.1%, Asian 5.1% and American Indian and Alaska Native 1.2% (“State & County QuickFacts,” 2012). It would be logical to think that these percentages are spread evenly in each state across the country, but that is not true. In Atlanta, Georgia African Americans is the largest percentage of this city at 54%. In Cedar Falls, Iowa the white population is over 90% (“State & County QuickFacts,” 2012). So while America can boast of her diversity, much of the country lives, works and associates and with people who look the same. Unfortunately this hinders the true development of all Americans to have a non-bias attitude when it comes to minorities. This is even more so when many only see others through the lenses of commercial media, which can be highly bias.
United States is about five percent of the world population, yet it houses twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners (“The Prison Crisis,” 2014). In addition, scholars agree that minorities, African Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians are adversely affected. Of the 250,900 state prison inmates serving time for drug offense in 2004, 133,100 (53.05%) were African Americans, 50,100 (19.00%) were Hispanic, and 64,800 (25.83%) were white (Harrison, 2006). At the start of the 1990’s the United States had more African American men between the age of 20 and 29 under the control of the nation’s criminal justice system than the total number in college (Harrison, 2006).There are a disproportionate number of African Americans behind bars when they are only 13% of the population.
Specific geographical areas of the nation are targeted for aggressive arrests and convictions. These are citizens in the poorest and most disadvantaged neighborhoods. These blighted areas have the highest incarceration rate, but not the highest crime rates. In addition, onerous new legislation in many states (such as the three strikes law for nonviolent offenders, and restrictions on early parole) makes it easier to keep our prisons supplied with inmates.
The Three Strikes law is a statute enacted by state governments which require the state courts to hand down mandatory extended periods of incarceration to people who have been convicted of any criminal offense on three or more separate occasions. These statutes became very popular in the 1990’s and are known as the three-strike laws. Due to these harsh new sentencing guidelines (‘three-strikes’ you’re out) a disproportionate number of young African Americans and Hispanic men are likely to be imprisoned for life. These life imprisonments are under scenarios for which they are guilty of little more than a history of untreated addictions and prior drug related offenses.
States will absorb “the staggering cost of not only construction of additional prisons to accommodate the increasing number of prisoners who will never be released but also warehousing them into old age. The U.S. incarcerates more people – in absolute numbers and per capita – than any other nation in the world, including the far more populous China (which rates 2nd) and Russia (which rates 3rd). With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population” (“The Prison Crisis,” 2014). Our criminal laws, while appearing neutral, are enforced in a manner that is pervasively biased. The injustice of the Criminal Justice System threatens to reverse fifty years of hard-fought Civil Rights progress.
Unfortunately, incarcerations for some have become a lifestyle, and are passed down from one generation to the next. It is a cycle designed to keep the prison economy profitable. However, this action is devastating to families who are without providers and children without parents. Even when former prisoners return to their environment, it is much more difficult to earn a living, and to integrate into society. These former prisoners are under a microscope by the authorities, whose goal is to have them return to the prison population as soon as possible. This hinders the former prison’s ability to integrate into society. Prison is not about rehabilitation, but profitability. Former inmates have a stigma attached to them. In some states their voting rights are stripped. These former inmates have a significantly more difficult time finding work and when they do, low wages prohibit them from adequately supporting their families. Sometimes once released, they return to mentally, emotionally, and financially depressed communities, thereby, decreasing the chances of successful integration.
What is America’s accountability for discrimination based on race, background and geographical location? Is America safe now that the bad guys are locked up? Are the bad guys really the ones behind bars? For everyone to take ownership of the reality of discrimination, is to take ownership that race matters. Does America care that it has systematically facilitated the plight of many of its best citizens. Can these citizens help themselves? America acknowledges its differences; however she does not always embrace them. Prison is so much a part of the American landscape it is difficult to imagine life without it. However, America’s penal system is in dire need of reform. Recently 73 year-old Walter Unbehaun, who had just been recently released from serving a ten-year prison term, robbed a Chicago Bank to guarantee his return to jail. He only had six months to live and he wanted to spend that time in jail (“US Crime,” 2013). Unbehaun was a career inmate. Why did he not to give up his freedom, and the ability to do, and come and go, as he pleased? Could it be that the prison system is designed to keep their employees for life?
In this country prison has become a for profit business. As in all business, when the end result does not produce a positive outcome, then the entire system requires reassessment. Generally, in a business, periodically the systems are re-evaluated and changes are made where needed. Processes are realigned. Therefore, the organizational structure, the internal politics that are hindering the rehabilitation of the inmates should be re-vamped. Prisons managers which promote or allow a “gang atmosphere” among prison inmates should be retrained or fired, if necessary. “The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985. It’s the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid” (Viguerie, 2013).
Angela Davis in her book Are Prisons Obsolete discusses why America so readily accepted the advancement in prison growth in the 1990’s. She attributed some of that to the Media’s perception that prisons are normal. People believe that if the bad guys are locked away they are safe. Davis is a strong advocate of abolishing prison altogether (Davis, 2003). If prison where abolished, rather than reformed, what happens afterwards. Imprisonment is so deeply ingrained into how this country deals with those that break the law, that it would take a catastrophic incident to completely abolish it. Davis goes on, however, to make strong rehabilitative points, such as eliminating sexual abuse, and providing better medical care in women prisons. She also argues for preventative measures to stop the cycle of incarceration. There are others who are advocates of prison equality and reform as stated on the website Reentry Court Solutions states the following:
There are the obvious reforms that almost everyone supports, but for some reason are almost never implemented. Drug, alcohol and mental health treatment, education, and job training while the offender is in custody, is almost universally supported by the public. Half-Way Houses or similar institutions that allow the offender to transition to the outside, while continuing under custodial or other substantial supervision are also favored by most. Finally, continued oversight of the offender while in the community, under the care and supervision of the court and supervisory agencies is a necessity for most successful prisoner rehabilitation (“The easy part of prison reform,” 2013).
This support can also continue with prison staff. If the morale is low because of poor working conditions, then prison reform means hiring more staff, or allowing volunteers to intervene when possible. By allowing community and religious organizations on a structured and organized schedule to come in and help the emotional state of the inmates will help everyone. Allowing volunteers to come into the prison will remind the inmates of life outside of the prison. This means that they will be able to integrate more successfully into the society when released.
Most understand that the problem of incarceration does not have a single solution. However, the fight to end incarceration as we know it should continue. One way, is to ensure that laws and the implementation of them are the same for each state. Communities that are most affected should continue with more education and information regarding pitfalls to steer clear of. School funding should be equal no matter what neighborhood a person lives in. They should be staffed in such a way to provide counseling for at risk students. Parents should be made more accountable when students are struggling with their studies and behavior.
The justice system should reassess penalties for low level non-violent crimes. These types of offenders are rehabilitative. A detail analysis of the current population may help determine which offenders are ready, or near ready to be integrated back into society. Reducing the prison population will reduce overall cost. While incarcerated inmates should be given an individual specialized plan to succeed when they are released. They should be taught life skills, and how to integrate into society in a positive way. Resources should be made available when they are released, since many inmates do not have a supportive family to return to.
Americans attitude can change when they have positive exposure to people of different ethnic backgrounds. This can be done by having diversity days at schools and churches. While the law does not support religious activities in public schools, ethics classes should be instituted at all levels teaching the difference between right and wrong, moral and immoral behavior. Real justice comes from change and change is difficult. But it can be achieved by helping one school, one community, one inmate at a time, until judicial systems are reformed and specific communities are not targeted.
Davis, A. Y. (2003). Are Prisons Obsolete? Ontario, CA: Publishers Group Canada.
Harrison, P. M. (2006, November). Prisoners in 2005. US Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics , p. 9.
State & County QuickFacts. (2012). US Census Bureau. Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html
The easy part of prison reform. (2013, 02 10). Reentry Court Solutions. Retrieved from http://www.reentrycourtsolutions.com/2013/10/07/the-easy-part-of-prison- reform/
The Prison Crisis. (2014). American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/safe-communities-fair-sentences/prison-crisis
US Crime. (2013, 02 13). The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/13/73-year-old-bank-robber
Viguerie, R. A. (2013, 06 09). A Conservative Case for Prison Reform. The Opinion Pages , pp. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/10/opinion/a-conservative-case-for-prison- reform.html?_r=0.