Racial Disparities in the U.S Criminal Justice System

A little background before you proceed: I graduated undergrad in May of 2018 with a BA in International Relations and a minor in philosophy. In my three years of school, I learned an abundance of things I believe should have been taught to us in Middle School. The truth of the Native American genocide, mass incarceration, the Chicano Revolution (which by the way, if you live in Colorado as I do - you should know that it happened in our very own Denver), etc. As I always say, knowledge is our greatest weapon. To hold a certain kind of knowledge and not use your power to spread it, and teach others is selfish. With that being said, among the many other things I am utilizing this platform for, I plan on sharing my more educational and study driven writings as well. Let’s begin.

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Racial Disparities within the United States Criminal Justice System

 

     The prevalence of racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system is quite vivid. This is especially true when one looks at the disproportionate arrests and unfair persecution of minorities. In this paper, I will be looking at the statistics of arrests of African Americans (compared to other races) such as the sentencing of African Americans compared to white individuals for the same crimes committed. I will also be applying the most fitting sociological theories in correlation with the reasonings and repercussions of racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. The theories that I will mostly focus on are conflict theory and structural functionalism along with concepts that fall under the two.

     “African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the rate in five states.” (Nellis 2016). It may be of no surprise to most individuals that African Americans are imprisoned five times more than white individuals all across the country. This is not just true for African American men, but boys as well. According to a survey conducted in 2010, African American juveniles accounted for only 17% of the juvenile population, yet 31% of the arrestees were African-American juveniles (Rovner 2014). This is due to the common racial discrimination and stigmas that have been placed on African American communities in the U.S for years on end. The focus here is on men of color as opposed to women, considering the fact that the overall rates of women being incarcerated are lower than that of men. To clarify my research furthermore, I would like to note that the issue of mass African-American incarceration and overall racial disparity in prisons dates back to the early 2000s, accumulating prior (Rovner 2014).

     There are two different major theories proposed in response to the question of why men of color have a higher incarceration rate than that of white men. One of these theories considers that men of color have different and worse ways of initiating deviant/criminal behavior. Others propose that the criminal justice system in the United States holds men of color accountable for crimes at a higher rate than white individuals (Rocque2011). One of the major sociological theories that can explain these theories is Social Conflict theory. If the first statement mentioned is true, it is critical that one considers why African American men, along with adolescents, commit such crimes by factoring in their common living conditions, education, and general resource allocations. With the second explanation, it’s only natural for a rational individual to be able to justify a statement as such by simply looking at how high black male incarceration is. 

     Crime rates are only partially a reflection of mass incarceration, varying from state to state. While this is relevant, policy implications that are put into place in and out of the criminal justice system also have a significant effect on the racial/ethnic anatomy of the nation’s prisons and jails.  “- school zone drug laws produce severe racial effects due to housing patterns, whereby drug offenses committed near the urban areas that contain many communities of color are prosecuted more harshly than similar offenses in rural communities populated largely by whites.” (Mauer and King 2007; 17). This is where racial and class discrimination falls. It allows for the second theory - that the criminal justice system in the United States holds minorities accountable more than whites for the same crimes -  to be validated by prevailing a double standard. 

     “Whatever the means of power (economic, political, military, and so on), it is a generalized commodity that can serve many interests and goals” (Kerbo 1991; 149). Conflict theory can be applied to this issue by analyzing the obvious presence of elements such as social class (stratification), oppression, exploitation, and most importantly, power dynamic. There are certain values and desires that the more overpowering class (and race) possess and strives to achieve that subsequently lead them to compete for social resources and power through the tactics of oppression and exploitation. Conflict theory stresses inequality the role of power maintaining order. This can be seen in the conversation on racial disparity in the way African American individuals can be subject to higher punishment than white individuals – even when the same crime has been committed. By analyzing this research, one might say that it can’t be a coincidence that the African American is the highest incarcerated man in the nation. Mass incarceration may be a tactic to stimulate innovation and maintain social hierarchy and order. 

     As shown in the statement I noted earlier by Mauer and King (2007), crimes that are committed in white, rural areas tend to be disregarded as opposed to those committed in lower-income, urban communities with colored populations. This reflects the racial disparity and one of the major causes of crimes committed by African American males; improper resource allocation and exploitation. According to the African American Hunger Facts, eleven percent of the African American population lives in deep poverty. Their poverty rates in 2016 were more than double that of white populations. As a result, African-American children are exposed to poverty, hunger, drugs, alcohol, etc. at a young age. It’s a well-known fact that liquor and convenience stores are placed in low-poverty neighborhoods to commit exploitation by generating revenue in a capitalistic nature, resulting in alcohol abuse and cigarette addiction. Not to mention that many African American children commonly see their own fathers, uncles, cousins, and brothers arrested and/or killed at a young age. Being raised in an upbringing as such is a set up for the damage, leading young African Americans into deviance without knowing any better. This is due to the fact that poverty driven neighborhoods usually lack the ability to fund education, leaving kids deprived of adequate education experience. 

       The portrayal of limited access to resources and high poverty can be explained through social stratification. For example, Davis Moore viewed stratification as a positive implication to society as he believed that it maintains order and motivation. However, it’s a power-driven social divider that limits the expansion of resources to the top one and two strata’s. It creates hostility between different economic classes and limits the lower class from growing by providing the elite with more power and weakening the bottom. The exploitation of many African Americans in poverty-stricken areas and deprivation of access to resources forces them to remain at the bottom. This is not to say that white individuals are not subject to poverty, the theories mentioned here are merely being applied to show the factors that lead to the unjust treatment of African Americans in the justice system.

            As a result of the poverty-stricken lifestyle and social stratification that many African American men live through, along with the countless stigmatizations and stereotypes placed on them for centuries, they have a higher chance of falling into false consciousness. They are subject to assimilating into the idea that the social structure they reside in is beyond their control and cannot be changed. They may also experience alienation and be deprived of the thought of their own self-potential due to the commonalities they see persist around them; black equals non-successful, deviant, amounts to nothing while white equals successful, full of potential, wealthy, privileged). This kind of thinking may lead them into deviance, as they have fallen into the perception that they have no power to drive their lives in a better direction.

    Considering the low-income nature that’s vastly spread amongst people of color, minorities have a higher chance of depending on an overburdened public defense system and residing in communities that contain alternative sentencing options and bias public defense. Being arrested as a low-income person of color, the chances are high in needing public defense. In this case, getting stuck with a district attorney that has no interest in going through the process of adequate due process and defense.

             In order to assure un-prejudice and fair defense, policymakers must consider establishing strict standards that provide independent indigent defense for each poverty-stricken defendant facing a possible jail sentence for a violation of a municipal ordinance. Independent indigent defense requires a nonpartisan individual - who is independent of the municipal court and municipal officials - to oversee the presentation of indigent defense counsel. The question is, does society want this? Or is the unfair representation, racial disparities and mass incarceration a tactic to keep society functioning “properly” – hence, structural functionalism. 

            Structural functionalism breaks down the rulers (oppressors) while conflict theory signifies the ruled (oppressed). Structural functionalists see deviance as a benefit to society. This can be the case in that it may maintain cultural values and norms, make moral boundaries more clear, promote social unity and push for some kind of social change. This theory maintains that society is a system that strives for balance. In the case of racial disparity and mass African American incarceration; it may be explained through structural functionalism, that the higher social powers view African American men as a threat or dysfunction to society which cannot be maintained. Even if a white man goes against the grain in the same manner, society may be able to justify their actions more than a black or brown man due to the social hierarchy factors that play into it. 

            It is critical to note racial prejudice as one of the leading factors in assisting stratification and social hierarchy in compliance with mass incarceration. Racial prejudice has been present in the United States since the beginning of its existence. While it has improved over the years, it remains a prevalent issue that significantly harms African Americans amongst other people of color. The way one may perceive an individual of another race plays into the outcomes of any given situation. An ample amount of studies portrays how beliefs about insecurity and threats to public safety overlap with the perceptions that individuals carry regarding people of color. 

            The racial discrimination factor of this research can fall under both structural functionalism and conflict theory. This is due to the fact that discrimination is embedded in one’s culture and their own personal social structure. An individual’s perception and ideology are molded by the environment he or she is raised in. If he/she grows up in an environment that undermines people of color and continuously molds images of stereotypes and stigmas of them, the individual knows no better than to submit to that point of view and act on it. All individuals are subject to the stereotypes that are embedded within their culture. The countless events of police brutality and unfair arrests on African Americans are an example of this being present in the criminal justice system. The bias is prevalent when the evidence of right or wrong is given, yet most of the police officers involved in these instances were wrongfully justified in their actions. The racial prejudice here is an extensive feature of socioeconomic interaction and the effects of social hierarchy and stratification. 

            Three of the major problems identified for causing these problematic reoccurrences and addressing the most common theories were; the effects of policies and practices that are implemented in each state throughout the nation and how they affect African American individuals differently than they affect white individuals. This gives the second theory more validation in that it portrays the presence of bias in the system and how it may be (directly or indirectly) built to set people of color up for failure. The second being the structural hindrances that deplete and limit African Americans to adequate resources such as poverty, poor education, capitalistic targets, etc. This theory also gives validation to the second theory by showing the factors of stratification and the use of exploitation to keep the weak from moving up. However, the first theory shines a light on some of the issues and traumas that many African Americans face which may lead them into deviance. Finally, the last being bias and racial discrimination of which may be prevalent in all of the theories mentioned. 

            Looking into racial disparity with the point of view of a sociologist has helped me grasp important factors that we, as normal everyday humans, are susceptible to turning a blind eye on. The issue of racial disparities in the U.S criminal justice system is one that is very complex. In order to rid of this domino effect, one must find the stem root of the problem and work their way up. 

 

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