Racial Bias Within United States Criminal Justice (Part One)

If there were international awards given for the most arcane correctional systems, the United States would be among the winners: its prison population of seven million is greater than that of any other country on earth (United Nations Shadow Report, par. 1).  Controlling the lives of this many people might be acceptable if everyone there deserved to be imprisoned, if the criminal justice system was not rife with injustices, but neither of those is the case. At every step in the administration of justice, from arrests, to jury selection, to trials, to sentencing, and finally to prisons themselves, racism has been institutionalized.  The final outcome is a prison population not only larger than every other country’s, but one that is disproportionately filled with people of color. Noting this disparity, a shadow report prepared for the United Nations stated:

African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males—compared to one of every seventeen white males. (par. 2)

This is not without consequences.  Prisoners lose their autonomy during and after their imprisonment.  Following release, former inmates may have limited access to loans, employment, education, voting, and other rights because of their criminal records (Benson, par. 2).  Thus, it is imperative that the trial system which decides the guilt or innocence of the accused is fair and free from racial bias. Achieving this goal will require the expansion of opportunities for attorneys to gather information before jury selection and the negotiation of peremptory strikes.  Even then, racial bias will continue permeating the administration of justice outside of jury trials.


One of these areas is police arrests, where racial bias leads to disproportionate arrests of those in minority groups.  This is supported by an analysis of arrest data sourced from the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI) which found that black individuals are more likely to be arrested for every category of crime in almost every United States city (Heath, par. 23).  Some of this disparity in arrest rates can be attributed to the higher property and violent crime rates of the black population (driven primarily by socioeconomic conditions), but the disparity is not eliminated when the difference in crime rates is taken into account during comparisons, which implicates racial bias in some police arrests (United Nations Shadow Report, par. 8).  When it is not outright racially motivated, this occurs because people, such as police officers, who make decisions under pressure resort to rash judgments based on implicit racial biases concluding blacks are more aggressive and likely to have committed a crime than others (United Nations Shadow Report, par. 8). One clear example of this is illustrated by the application of drug criminalization laws.  The Brookings Institute notes that, compared to white individuals, black individuals are arrested 3.6 times more frequently for drug sales and 2.5 times as often for drug use even though blacks and whites commit drug offenses at roughly equal rates based on anonymous survey data (Rothwell, par. 4 – 5). The fact that both races commit these crimes at equal rates but black individuals face a higher chance of being arrested shows that the issue is racially driven; it is not a matter of blacks simply committing drug crimes more often. This high frequency of arrests and police encounters not only disrupts the lives of those affected but puts their lives at great risk.   

Each time a black individual is confronted by the police, they face a higher risk of being harmed or killed.  Following a number of police confrontations with black individuals, such as the one leading to the killing of the unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri three years ago, the rate that police officers kill individuals has dropped for every population except Native Americans (Swaine, par. 9).  Based on FBI data, 169 unarmed individuals were killed in 2016 compared to 234 in 2015. The problem of racially driven police brutality remains, however. The same data set shows that the black population as a whole remains about 2.3 times as likely to have a fatal encounter with the police, and black males aged 15-34 are nine times more likely to have a fatal encounter with the police compared to white males of the same age range (Swaine, par. 2).  A study conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health examining data from 2013 to June 2017 found that even when accounting for the frequency of police encounters within the entire black population, the rate of fatal police encounters for unarmed, black individuals remained disparately high (Samuels, par. 5, 8). This indicates that the source of the problem can be attributed to the racial attitudes of police officers and not just compounding factors such as crime frequency or the behavior of black individuals during encounters.  Unfortunately, the impact of a racist justice system does not end at the hands of law enforcement.

The frequency and severity of punishments delivered by the criminal justice system are also greater for those in minority groups.  Attorney and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson provides numerous examples of this in his award-winning book Just Mercy. The harshest crime that the United States criminal justice system can deliver is the death penalty, but, although it is irreversible and signals that a person is undeserving of life itself, it is not applied as scrupulously as one might hope.  In every state where the death penalty remains legal, defendants who are black are significantly more likely to receive the death penalty than white counterparts who were convicted of the same crime (Stevenson 142). The fact that this happens when people are found guilty of the same crime shows a larger problem with the delivery of justice.  Even children are not free from these racialized machinations. For example, every child below the age of fourteen sentenced to life imprisonment in Florida was either black or Latino (Stevenson 153 – 154). It seems unlikely, to say the least, that the only children and teenagers committing crimes were black and Latino. One painful example is illustrated by the story of a Hispanic boy named Antonia Nunez who lived in South Central Los Angeles, California.  He had grown up experiencing daily physical abuse at the hands of his father and frequently witnessed violent confrontations between his parents until he developed trauma symptoms such as frequent nightmares. One day, he joined a couple men to fake a kidnapping after they insisted on it. Following a violent police chase, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for kidnapping even though he was fourteen years old, had a background making him vulnerable to manipulation, and did not actually harm anyone.  Though the kidnapping was faked, he was sentenced for kidnapping. The reasoning provided by the judge for the harsh punishment was that he was a violent gang member, except there was no evidence except baseless assumptions premised on his age and ethnic background to support this (Stevenson 154 – 156). Further problematizing these unnecessarily harsh punishments is the fact that many individuals in minority groups, especially those with dark skin, face a greater chance of being convicted during jury trials.

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Source: https://avhstalon.org/7175/opinion/racial-bias-within-united-states-criminal-justice/