? Essay, Research Paper
Is the Criminal Justice System Racially Biased?
Most criminologist use two sources of criminal justice data in the
United States: the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Crime
Victimization Surveys (NCVS). The URC data is made from law enforcement
agencies and include crime incidents reported to or obtained by the police.
NCVS data is obtained from a very complex national survey of a sample of homes
and provide information about crime incidents and victims for both reported and
unreported crimes, excluding homicide. For my report I obtained research
information from questionnaires and from several text books. I gave the
questionnaire concerning bias in the criminal justice system to four whites,
four blacks, one Asia, and one Mexican. Although this sample is not
representative of racial attitudes in general, it can used to develop a better
sense of differences among students.
To discuss my findings fully I must define a few terms. The Criminal
Justice System is the network of agencies that respond to crime, including the
police, courts, jails, and prisons. Minority Group is a group of people who,
because of physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out for
differential and different and who regard them as objects of collective
discrimination. Discrimination is the act of singling out for unfair treatment.
Labeling is stereotyping, or putting a tag on someone, and treating them
accordingly. Self-fulling Prophecy is an expectation about how things will be
the situations that they predicted or expected. Finally, Differential
Association is the idea that interacting with others learns criminal behavior.
It is no secret whites and blacks in America experience life differently
because of their race. Therefore, whites and blacks view the criminal justice
system differently. My research found 70% of those studied agree the courts do
not offer equal treatment. Although both agree that the system is biased,
whites seem to have a more positive view about the whole system, while Blacks
feel the system is corrupt and works’ against them. 50% of my non-white sample
and 20% of my white sample felt the courts discriminate. James Henslin, author
of the text Social Problems, states “[Violent crime] recedes with income …
people with higher incomes live in better, more affluent and less violent
neighborhoods”(Henslin 141). The criminal justice system is made up of these
type people, who are mostly white, and they share the same moral community.
Blacks however are on the outskirts of that moral community or in another
different moral community. Ultimately whites and blacks do not relate to and
understand the Criminal Justice System the same for they view and react to the
actions of authorities based on their life experiences caused by race and SES
I stated earlier that blacks and whites are in different moral
communities, this means that the normal excepted behavior for one group is not
the same for the other group. We can prove this with statistics. The median
family income for whites is 38,909 and for blacks it is 21,161. This shows that
blacks earn 54% of what whites earn. In addition, 4% of whites are unemployed,
while 8% of blacks are unemployed. This shows that blacks are unemployed at a
rate of 200% compared with unemployed whites. Also, 9% of whites live in
poverty, compared with 31% of blacks living in poverty. This is an astonishing
figure that states 344% of blacks live in unacceptable conditions compared with
whites. What does all of this mean? Where and how you live decide who you are,
and contribute to labelling. Obviously, blacks have a lower SES and fall
victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy and labels. The problem arises when “the
Criminal Justice System discriminates against these groups of citizens” (Henslin
In William Chambliss’ study of “Saints and Roughnecks” he proved that
social class does matter. People and police in the local community labelled the
lower class kids as worst than the upper-class kids based on their parents’ SES
(Henslin 190). The police also believed this label. They proved discrimination
against the “roughnecks” because they had the discretion to harass and arrest
whoever they wanted. Although both groups participated in the same activities,
the “roughnecks” were harassed worst than the “saints.” My research found 100%
of my sample agree police discriminate. Although Chambliss’ study dealt with
high and low class students, our studies can be compared for race coincides with
class status in American society. 60% of my non-white sample felt police
discriminate almost always to sometimes, but 10% felt they do so almost always.
30% of my white sample felt the police discriminate, but that they do so almost
never; the other 10% felt they do so only sometimes. Many whites, therefore, fit
into the category of “Saints.’ My studies show both have knowledge os some sort
of police discrimination.
Another example of this discrimination is found in the sentences of
three young males: Buddy 19-year-old black, Gary 34, and Clyde 21, both white.
The trio robbed a l liquor store and were caught by authorities. Clyde came up
with the 5,000 dollars it took to secure his bond. Gary and Buddy could not so
they had to stay in jail. Just before the trial Clyde plead guilty and received
five years probation after the judge previously sentenced him to 3-5. Gary
received 6-10 years in prison. Buddy on the other hand received a 15-year
minimum prison term. Three men received different punishments for the same
crime and the black man got the worst sentence (Henslin 184).
The issue of discrimination in the criminal justice system has been in
the eye of the Supreme Court for years, however with issues of capital
punishment it has taken a new twist. In the 1972 Supreme Court case Furman v.
Georgia, the court ruled that the death penalty was cruel and unusual punishment
as prohibited by the eighth and fourteenth amendments. Five on the nine
justices addressed the racial issue. Judge Marshall said it was
unconstitutional because it, “imposed discriminatorily against certain
identifiable classes of people”(Aguire and Baker 110). A few years later this
decision was overturned. Nonetheless, within a few years capital punishment was
used in the courts again. Ideally, the court room should leave no room for
discrimination, bias, and labelling, for ones life is at stake. However, this
is easier said than done. “Police are more likely to arrest black
suspects”(Henslin 213). A recent study revealed astonishing evidence of
racial bias in Virginia. Sociologist Donald Partington examined all death row
inmates in Virginia charged with rape and attempted rape between 1908 and 1963.
Between this time, of the 2798 convicted men 56% were black. All of these black
men were executed. Ironically none of the 44% convicted white men were
executed (213). This proved just how racially biased Virginia, and probably
others, were between 1908 and 1963.
Applying sociological labels to these concerns provide concrete
credibility. Symbolic Interactionist emphasize, social class is a powerful
symbol that affects people’s perceptions and behavior; and authorities tend to
see what they want to see. Because of this, many blacks are already seen in a
negative way in the eyes of the criminal justice system. Functionalist consider
crime a natural part of society. To them crime serves a purpose in the criminal
justice system. The police target crime from black degenerates in society for
they are easily targeted, to meet their quotas and goals in order to fake doing
a lot to stop crime in society as a whole. Of course blacks are among the
lowest social class in America. They have little defense to this tactic and it
perpetuates the negative label given to them, and reinforces their self
fulfilling prophecy. Conflict theorist see the criminal justice system as a
strategy administered and created according to the wishes of the powerful. With
this theory, law enforcement is a cultural device the powerful use to carry out
their policies. Also it serves as an instrument of repression designed to
maintain the powerful in their privileged positions. Here plea-bargaining is
used to effectively enforce social control over the poor at a reduced cost to
the state. However, this is not to say that the powerful do not commit crimes.
Their crimes are called white collar and are usually handled in courts that
instead of administering prison terms render fines. In all, these labels work
together to better define and understand the social problem of discrimination in
the criminal justice system. Ethnic discrimination is clearly functional for
certain groups. Symbolic interactionest help in determining how people see
themselves and others. They also, allow well-meaning people to discriminate
with a clear conscience.
Many people began to refute the notion that the criminal justice was
racially biased so the government implemented two programs effecting the fate of
minorities and the poor offenders in this country. First, the Sentencing Reform
Act of 1984 gave mandatory sentences. Secondly the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986
which caused the principal increase of black populations in prisons. Despite
the fact that these programs were implemented at almost the same time; the
combined effect of guideline justice and the war on drugs has been disastrous
for the poor minority population. We can conclude, although the justice system
overcame much of the overt racism that existed before, disproportionate racial
disparity still exist. The system purposely adopted policies that continue to
target poor minorities.
My results did show that there was differences in the way black and
white students in American society view the criminal justice system. Because
race can be compared to SES non-whites have a more negative view of how often
police discriminate. On the other hand whites are not ignorant to the negative
police discrimination non-whites face; nevertheless they feel it happens much
less than it actually does, or almost never. Similar, in the courts, more non-
whites feel their is discrimination. My answer to this could be that non-whites
are being convicted, going to jail and receiving the death penalty, while white
are the ones suing, and are not getting convicted for crimes when they are
arrested. While we all agree the criminal justice system is corrupt, my studies
show, whites and blacks disagree with the extent to which it happens. This is an
obvious result because blacks and whites are in two separate moral communities.
Blacks have been negatively labeled, and stigmatized as lower class citizens who
cause trouble. Inturn they have been the victim of legislation that keeps them
in the dismal status they are in.