Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System

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Diversity has enabled the United States to flourish by providing a population of citizens who can perform many different essential crafts, exchange unique world-perspectives, and generate innovative and beneficial ideas that improve the conditions of communities and enhance the quality of society.  However, throughout American history, the country has consistently failed to embrace diversity and has conversely resisted and confronted minority groups with social, professional and political discrimination.  The US is currently experiencing a problem in which the criminal justice system develops and implements policies that disproportionately impact and discriminate against minorities.  The contextual aspect of the discrimination-disparity continuum reflects the level of discrimination inflicted upon minorities by the criminal justice system, the dramatic economic inequality gap of the country segregates many minority communities, and the war on drugs policies and mass incarceration strategies provide modern methods by which the criminal justice system can discriminate against and exclude minority citizens from society.   

The Discrimination-Disparity Continuum was established by criminology experts Cassia Spohn, Samuel Walker, and Miriam DeLone.  The continuum articulates the many different levels of racially unjust standards that are often implemented by a society and emphasizes the manner in which the criminal justice system of the US has perpetuated discriminatory policies.  The five levels of discriminatory standards include pure justice, individual acts of discrimination, contextual discrimination, institutionalized discrimination, and systematic discrimination.  Each progressive level on the continuum reflects more egregious and comprehensive forms of racial policies.  Whereas pure justice would relate to a system in which all diverse members of a society are provided with identical treatment and equal rights, systematic discrimination refers to policies in which the various processes and procedures of the justice system conspire to discriminate against minorities.  While there are many stages and processes of a criminal justice system, the continuum addresses all circumstances and primary stages of the system, including “arrests, prosecutions, and sentencing (Walker, Spohn and DeLone, 2012).”  Thus, the Discrimination-Disparity Continuum expounds on the different levels of racism that a criminal justice system of a society can exhibit, each level represents a more intense degree of discrimination, and the continuum considers all stages of the criminal justice system when determining the discriminatory level of a society.

Alexander and Martinez would assert that the criminal justice system of the United States currently represents the contextual level on the Discrimination-Disparity Continuum.  Contextual discrimination refers to situations in which certain aspects of the criminal justice system facilitate discrimination.  Certain aspects of the criminal justice system reflect equal treatment, such as jury selection and basic due process rights of offenders.  However, many other aspects and contexts of the criminal justice system involve racially biased and discriminatory procedures.  The US currently experiences a devastating incarceration problem in which the country confines more citizens in prison than any other country on the planet, including Russia and China.  Because racial groups commit crimes at equal rates but minorities reflect the majority of incarcerated citizens, Alexander and Martinez would ascribe the disproportionate incarceration rates to certain contextual injustices that target and discriminate against minorities.  For instance, minority citizens are arrested and incarcerated at dramatically and disproportionately higher rates than white citizens due to many policies perpetuated by the criminal justice system.  The arrest procedures and law enforcement tactics of the police facilitate the discriminatory process, for many reports indicate that police officers target and concentrate on minority communities and stop minorities at excessive rates.  Reports indicate that “the racial profiling in traffic stops occurs in three contexts: the war on drugs, people being out of place, and crackdowns on gangs or crime (Walker, Spohn and DeLone, 2012).”  As a result, law enforcement tactics cause minorities to experience substantially higher arrest rates than white citizens.  The prosecution and sentencing context of many courts also exasperate the biased and discriminatory trends of society.  For instance, several studies demonstrate that prosecutors and judges inflict minorities with extremely severe sentences, this often includes imposing harsh sentences for minor drug offenses, and minorities often receive significantly more severe sentences than white people who commit the same crimes.  The strict sentencing magnifies the racially imbalanced system by ensuring that the overwhelming majority of prisoners incarcerated in the US are black or Latino citizens (Walker, Spohn and DeLone, 2012).  Thus, Alexander and Martinez would most likely contend that the US criminal justice system exemplifies a contextual discrimination level, for while some aspects of the system are racially just, law enforcement officers arrest minorities at excessive rates while the court system then inflicts substantially more severe sentences upon minority citizens than white citizens.

Many levels of racial and ethnic disparity currently exist in the US.  The economic inequality is one of the most fundamental levels of disparity, for the glaringly disproportionate income inequality gap of the country affects the middle class and the minority groups of society.  The US has developed a dramatic economic inequality problem in which a few wealthy individuals and corporations possess the overwhelming majority of the nation’s wealth while many families and communities suffer from a drastic lack of resources.  However, the economic inequality disparity has disproportionately impacted and harmed black and Latino citizens by confining many minority groups into impoverished communities that deprive them of equal opportunities to achieve financial prosperity.  For instance, the high school systems in many disenfranchised minority communities are inferior and lack basic resources, such as textbooks, classrooms, educational supplies, and effective teachers.  The minorities in impoverished communities also experience difficulties attempting to get a college education because they cannot afford tuition, receive scholarship grants, or be accepted into prestigious universities.  As a result, lacking a degree prevents the minorities in disenfranchised communities from receiving prominent positions of employment outside of the communities, the scarcity of jobs within the communities inflicts the residents with high unemployment rates, and the few available jobs pay insufficient minimal wages that cannot sustain a family.  This is especially detriment, for the lack of educational and professional opportunities impairs the quality of life for the residents and exasperates the crime rates of the country.  Because the minority residents perceive that they cannot receive an education or obtain prestigious positions of employment, some engage in criminal activities as the only conceivable method of acquiring financial success and social prestige (Martinez, 2015).  Thus, the US is incurring a severe economic inequality and income disparity problem, many minority communities lack educational and professional opportunities, and the inequality prevents them from contributing to the professional endeavors of society and impels them to commit crimes to attain financial stability for their families. 

The notion that the US is being divided into two societies is validated by the current data.  The 1960s promised equality and opportunity for all citizens with the various Civil Rights and Equal Employment laws implemented throughout the pivotal decade.  These laws were intended to prohibit discrimination, provide equal opportunities to all citizens, and enable minorities to participate in society and achieve financial success.  However, the US is now conversely regressing into more segregated and unequal standards.  For instance, black people currently feature disproportionately lower education, literacy, and income rates than white people.  Black people also in turn experience significantly higher unemployment, poverty and incarceration rates.  The inequality has also caused minorities to endure an inferior quality of life as a result of the difficult living conditions, the intense health problems, and the financial struggles that confront many impoverished communities.  Additionally, the opportunity gap also indicates regression of racial justice and the development of two societies.  The lack of educational, professional and economic opportunities prevents minorities from contributing to society and instead causes many minority communities to establish their own subcultures with their own sets of values (Walker, Spohn and DeLone, 2012).  Thus, the US is being divided into two societies, for minorities incur a lack of equality and opportunities, the gaps in many crucial social and economic categories have been expanding and intensifying in recent decades and since the recent recession, and the standards of inequality and the lack of opportunities segregates many minority groups from society and establishes the development of two societies.   

The war on drugs and mass incarceration issues reflect a modern form of Jim Crowe laws by legitimizing systematic discrimination.  Many comprehensive studies demonstrate that the war on drugs has been disproportionately and excessively utilized to target and incarcerate minorities.  Although white and minority communities experience the same drug rates, the police have been exclusively concentrating the war on drugs tactics against minority communities, this causes minorities to experience dramatically higher arrest rates than white people, and the narrow selectivity of only focusing on minority communities reflects a discriminatory procedure of targeting and discriminating against minorities.  The court system further exasperates the Jim Crowe form of segregation perpetuated by the war on drugs.  Many reports indicate that the court systems inflict harsh penalties and sentence minorities to prison for minor drug offenses and that white people often receive comparatively minimal penalties for the same drug offenses.  As a result, the US has the highest incarceration rates in the world, the majority of prisoners are black and Latino citizens, and the majority of the prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses (Alexander, 2012).  Thus, the war on drugs and the police tactics concentrate on minority citizens and communities, the court system is extremely harsh on minority drug offenders, and this facilitates the exorbitant incarceration rates in which the country has systematically used the war on drugs as an excuse to imprison minorities. 

The war on drugs is especially discriminatory because it excludes minorities from society.  Michelle Alexander states that, “by waging a war on drug dealers and users, Regan made good on his promise to crack down on the racially defined others- the undeserving (Alexander, 2012).”  This statement accurately articulates the racist intentions and discriminatory results facilitated by the war on drugs policy.  US law prohibits discrimination against any citizens based on many factors, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age or disability.  This standard is intended to provide equal rights, equal opportunities, and equal abilities for all citizens to participate in society.  However, convicts represent the one group of citizens that society can discriminate against.  The stigmatic convict label allows society to discriminate against convict citizens by allowing people and institutions to deprive the convicts of equal rights regarding educational, social, professional, and housing opportunities.  Additionally, the inability for convicts to vote reflects the ultimate discrimination, for voting rights are essential to participatory citizenship and denying voting rights effectively prevents the convicts from participating in the political process of the country.  As a result, the war on drugs and the convict labelS allow the US to legally discriminate against minorities and prevent them from participating in the social, professional, or political structures of society (Alexander, 2012).  This problem reflects Jim Crowe policies because the US permits discrimination against convicts, the war on drugs attaches many minorities with the convict label and ensuring that minorities are labeled as convicts allows the society to also discriminate against minorities.  Thus, the war on drugs provides the country with a method to legally exclude minorities from society by mass incarcerating numerous minorities for nonviolent drug offenses, confining them in prison for an extensive period of time, and then the convict label allows the US to segregate and exclude them from the traditional structures of society after their release.

Although the US flourished due to the diversity of the population and the different skills of the citizens, the country has frequently exposed minority groups to disgraceful and detrimental forms of discrimination.  The criminal justice system currently perpetuates policies and tactics that encourage and permit discrimination against minorities.  However, discrimination is problematic for the progress of the entire country.  Because the US requires an abundance of intelligent and talented citizens to generate beneficial ideas and perform various jobs, the exclusion of minorities harms the entire country by minimizing the number of citizens who can contribute to the many intellectual, professional, and economic endeavors of the country.  As a result, the United States must exert action to modify and rectify the many problems that are impairing the criminal justice system and exposing minorities to discrimination.  The US criminal justice system dramatically and disproportionately mass incarcerates minorities, the law enforcement tactics, and court system biases facilitate this contextual discrimination, and the war on drugs and mass incarceration policies enable the criminal justice system to discriminate and exclude minorities from society.


Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press.

Martinez, R. (2015). Latino homicide: Immigration, violence, and community. New York: Routledge.

Walker, S., Spohn, C., & DeLone, M.  (2012). The color of justice: Race, ethnicity, and crime in America. Belmont: Wadsworth Pub.