Written by: Scott Johnson
Many states have reported growing racial variations in the arrests and sentencing of criminal offenders from the African American group. A majority of human rights practitioners are worried that the statistics have failed to fast-track the necessary reforms in the justice system. For example, in a research study conducted by Hetey et al. (2016), an analysis of pedestrian and traffic stops in Oakland, California indicated that about 60% of the police stops targeted African Americans even though this group constitutes about 27% of the entire Oakland population.
Of those stopped for random police checks, African Americans were more likely to be arrested and arraigned in court for several criminal-related reasons. The same trend has been observed in large cities such as New York, Greensboro, North Carolina, Boston, and Los Angeles. (Rao & Shroff, 2016). Thus, it can be concluded that the trend of racial disparity in arresting and incarceration is predominant across the country, even though the statistics are more glaring in some states as compared to the rest of the country.
In another research study conducted by Epp, Haiddy-Markel, & Maynard-Moody (2014), black individuals indicated that they are often treated with little respect than the whites during the routine checks by law enforcement officers. With the use of surveillance cameras and video recorders, the researchers noted that law enforcement agents used less respectful language and search methods when dealing with blacks as compared to the whites.
In terms of public opinion regarding the apparent disparities in the criminal justice system, it appears that the whites are not as concerned as their black counterparts in addressing this negative trend. Peffley and Hurtwitz (2007) reported that about 52% of the Whites favor the death penalty when informed about the racial disparities in prison populations. Similar observations were made by Hetey and Eberhardt (2014), who observed that white voters in California were unwilling to support the lessening of the sentencing laws in cases where a majority of those incarcerated were blacks.
On the other hand, more white voters were willing to sign the petition when the researchers reversed the prison populations to include less blacks and more white prisoners. A similar trend was observed in New York where participants were unwilling to sign a petition calling for an end to the stop-and-search policy after the researchers presented a prison population comprising of 60% blacks and 40% whites (Hetey & Eberhardt (2014).
The observations from these sample studies indicate that educating the White Americans on the racial disparities in the criminal justice system could actually boost their support for the policies that tend to perpetuate these disparities. Thus, the debate on how to end the racial disproportions in criminal justice is left solely to the black populations where 71% of them have a history of racial discrimination in the hands of law enforcement agencies (Pew Research Center, 2016).
Divided Support for Racial Equality
Without direct engagement and experience with racial disparity, the major reason why the racial inequalities do not evoke public outcry is due to the varying interpretations of those inequalities. For some, the racial disparities observed at police stops and the subsequent arrests and incarcerations are an indication of systemic racial bias (Alexander, 2010). For other people, the racial disparities have a direct relationship to the rate of criminality among a particular group of people.
White Americans are more prone to deny any claims of bias in the hands of law enforcement agencies, ostensibly to uphold the country’s image as meritocratic and fair (Peffley & Hurwitz, 2007). Consequently, this hinders the white populations from understanding the trends in racial inequality, as well as the institutional practices that discriminate against the minority groups.
Rates of Arrests an Incarceration
From the review of research studies above, minority groups in the U.S. particularly the African Americans have a high representation in the criminal justice system. Even though most of the crimes are purported to be conducted by males, there is a significant disproportion of black females when it comes to criminal convictions and sentencing. In fact, the rate of incarcerated black women has been growing at the fastest rate, superseding the rate of both the white and black males.
While most of the arrests and incarceration of whites are based on trivial crimes such as over-speeding, black individuals are often faced with serious crimes such as assault, drunk driving, homicide, arson, and burglary. Another important observation is that the recent crime control policies such as the 3-strikes legislation, truth-in-sentencing, and minimum sentencing have been applied more on the young black males from low income communities as compared to the white groups (Tyler & Cheryl, 2004).
While some argue that these policies have succeeded in lowering crime rates in many areas, the policies have been interpreted as a deliberate effort to associate criminal activities with a certain group, particularly the young African American males. As a result, public opinion polls have demonstrated that more American whites now believe that African Americans are more susceptible to criminality, leading to the apparent fear and suspicion of blacks by their white counterparts.
Trends in drug-related incarcerations
The comparison of the criminal penalties for drug-related charges clearly demonstrates the high disproportion of criminal sanctions between blacks and American whites. About 80% of prisoners serving drug-related charges are blacks, with the whites accounting for only about 14%. However, it cannot be argued that drug abuse is more prevalent among the blacks than the white populations. For instance, the major reason for the tough policies against drug abuse is the need to curb the violence and threat to public safety that result from the drug abuse.
It is noteworthy that a great deal of drug-related violence among blacks is attributable to the economic competition for the illicit drugs in black-dominated communities. On the other hand, a significant amount of drugs such as powder cocaine, which is more expensive than crack cocaine, is consumed indoors by the wealthy class comprising of the whites. There is minimal violence in such neighborhoods, and this means low rates of arrests and convictions for drug-related charges.
Thus, the disproportion in arrests and incarceration cannot be taken to mean that drug abuse is more prevalent among the African Americans (Skogan & Kathleen, 2004). In fact, research studies have indicated that African American young males consume far lower amounts of both the licit and illicit drugs as compared to the whites. Ironically, more blacks are incarcerated on drug-related charges than the whites. It can be concluded that the policies that emphasize on the criminal instead of the public health component of drug abuse, coupled with the aggressive policing of black-dominated poor neighborhoods has contributed to the wide racial disparities in drug-related convictions and subsequent incarceration.
From a socio-economic perspective, policies aimed at curbing criminal activities carried out on behalf of a ‘gang’ have also contributed to the rising racial disparities in criminal arrests and sentencing. Without a clear definition of a gang by the law, most police strategies have associated ‘gangs’ with a large number of men and women, especially those of color. As s result, a large number of black young men aged between 21 and 30 years have found themselves in the police database of likely gang members, putting them at a constant risk of arbitrary arrest and incarceration.
Economically, communities with high poverty and unemployment levels, coupled with social isolation and family disruptions tend to have high rates of delinquency and aggression. The result is a surge in crime levels that are followed by mass arrests and incarcerations.
With African Americans dominating most of the low-income regions in the country, the high number of arrests in these areas are likely to target the young black African Americans. Furthermore, discriminating housing practices and policies greatly reinforce racial segregation that is highly biased towards the minority groups. With minimal access to high quality education, economic opportunities, and organizational interaction with their white peers, most young males from the poor communities have a higher likelihood to engage in criminal activities (Lynch & William, 2004).
As a result, the relative deprivation of quality livelihoods has continued to disproportionately involve the black populations in the criminal justice system, either as offenders or victims. Additionally, there are concerns that the return of the high number of incarcerated youths to their economically disadvantaged communities contributes to the high breakdown of social networks, family disruptions, and this raises the probability of increased crime rates in the future (Lynch & William, 2004).
Disparities in Juvenile Arrests and Convictions
While research has demonstrated that more blacks are over-represented in criminal arrests and incarceration, the trend is even more skewed for juvenile black offenders. In fact, there is a growing consensus among criminal and social science researchers that race-based discrimination is more prevalent among the juvenile offenders, especially those from the minority groups. According to Feld (1999), when both the prior record and present offense are taken into consideration, individualized sentencing in juveniles points to a great deal of racial discrimination.
Still, other researchers have indicated the greater flexibility and informality allowed in juvenile case processing as prone to abuse of discretion. Most of these research studies concur that racial disparity involving juveniles is evident throughout the criminal justice system, starting from the point of arrest, criminal processing, prosecution, conviction, sentencing, and eventual incarceration.
Even though evidence demonstrating direct racial and ethnic bias by the police remains scanty, there is evidence associating the law enforcement agencies with more aggressive surveillance of low-income neighborhoods and stereotyping of the areas as crime-prone areas. The result has been coded arrests of young black men who are treated with hostility from the point of arrest, interrogation, and subsequent arraignment in court. Apart from criminal profiling and rampant arrests, it is notable that youth from minority groups are disadvantaged during other stages of the justice system such as the court intakes (Skogan & Kathleen, 2004).
For example, most of the black juvenile offenders are highly unlikely to be released outright or have their cases diverted from formal processing as compared to the whites. In what appears to be outright racial discrimination, non-white juvenile offenders arrested for delinquent acts are more likely to be subjected to pre-adjudicatory detention prior to formal processing in juvenile courts where they are again subjected to highly deterrent judicial dispositions. The trend is widespread in many states despite the fact that the purpose of the juvenile criminal system is to offer responses that promote the ‘best interests’ of every child.
From the analysis of the current body of research on trends in the criminal justice system, it is clear that racial disparities are evident in the entire process of surveillance, arrests, and convictions. Even though most of the criminal arrests are made within the low-income minority neighborhoods, there are concerns that abusive policing and under-policing have contributed significantly to the growing racial inequality in the provision of justice.
While a majority of black populations believe that racial profiling is the leading cause of arbitrary arrests and convictions, the white populations are reluctant to associate police arrests with racial factors, and this has greatly subdued any constructive debate to address the racial disparities in the justice system. The socioeconomic disparities between the white and black populations, especially the African Americans has also contributed to the disproportionate representation of the two groups in the criminal justice system.
The current lack of access to quality education, coupled with inadequate housing and high unemployment rates have predisposed young black males to criminal activities. Furthermore, the current trend of associating criminal activities with a particular group of people, and the biased interpretation of the term ‘gang’ have exacerbated the racial disparities in arbitrary arrests, questioning, and processing for court proceedings, leading to the high number of individuals from the minority groups currently incarcerated.
The fact that minority groups constitute the greatest proportion of the prison population despite their low proportion in the national population point to widespread economic, political, and socioeconomic factors that negatively discriminate against minority populations.
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