Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System

February 10, 2015

by Nanya Springer

In recent years, there has been much discussion about whether America is now a “post-racial” society.  The introduction of the first non-white family into the White House was accompanied by some enthusiastic declarations of victory over the scourge of racism.  Observers looked to the president and to other successful minorities and decided that yes, racism is indeed over.

But focusing on the most successful elements of any demographic group proves little, for wealth has the ability to elevate and to insulate.  One area where this is most evident is in the American criminal justice system.  When navigating the justice system, the ability to hire top-notch legal counsel or to post a significant bond drastically affects the outcome of a case.  This is true for both white citizens and for citizens of color.

Unfortunately, however, racial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color.  There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.

The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system.  From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white.

This trend begins long before contact with the criminal justice system is made.  Numerous studies show that students of color are suspended or otherwise reprimanded at higher rates than white students for the same or similar infractions.  This disparity exists even between light-skinned and darker-skinned students of color and forms the first step in what has been termed the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  Black youths are more likely to be criminally charged and sent to juvenile court (or adult court) than their white counterparts, where they are six times more likely to be sentenced to jail — 48 times more likely if the charge was for a drug offense.  Young people of color are also disproportionately targeted by certain widespread policing methods, including broken windows policing and its notorious companion, the stop and frisk.

Whether due to racial hatred, implicit bias or economic inequality, there is overwhelming evidence that criminal defendants of color are subjected to a different criminal justice system than white defendants.  For the next two weeks, ACSblog will hold a symposium in which experts will examine flaws at each stage of the criminal justice system and propose solutions so that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice under the law may be realized for every American.