Race in the United States criminal justice system

Race in the United States criminal justice system refers to the unique experiences and disparities in the United States in regard to the policing and prosecuting of various races. There have been different outcomes for different racial groups in convicting and sentencing felons in the United States criminal justice system.[3][4] Experts and analysts have debated the relative importance of different factors that have led to these disparities.[5][6] Minority defendants are charged with crimes requiring a mandatory minimum prison sentence more often, in both relative and absolute terms (depending on the classification of race, mainly in regards to Hispanics), leading to large racial disparities in correctional facilities.[7]

Historical timeline

Race has been a factor in the United States criminal justice system since the system's beginnings, as the nation was founded on Native American soil.[8] It continues to be a factor throughout United States history through the present.

Lynching and Lynch-Law date back to the 1700s when the term was first used by the Scotch-Irish in reference to an act pursued by the Quakers toward Native Americans.[8] The law was originally regulatory, providing regulations regarding how lynching could and could not be carried out.[8] Most crimes of and relating to lynching prior to 1830 were frontier crimes and were considered justifiable due to necessity.[8]

In the construction of the United States Constitution in 1789, slavery and white supremacy were made part of the justice system, as citizens were defined as free white men.[9]

Antebellum (1830–1860)

Lynch law was renewed with the anti-slavery movement, as several acts of violence towards people of color took place in the early 1830s.[8] In August 1831, Nat Turner led the slave insurrection in Virginia. Turner, an African-American Baptist preacher, believing that the Lord had destined him to free his race, followed through with his plans to conquer Southampton county through the enlistment of other slaves.[8] He did so by traveling from house to house murdering every white person he could find.[8] Due to this act, many innocent slaves were killed by the police.[8]

The court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford made it so that African slaves and their descendants were considered non-citizens, further incorporating racism into the justice system.[9]

Postbellum (1865–)

When slavery was abolished after the Civil War through the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution, violence against African Americans increased tremendously and thousands of African Americans experienced lynching.[9] African American men were routinely rounded up, charged with being unemployed or having changed jobs without the consent of their previous employer (which were both illegal for blacks in some southern states), and subjected to years of forced hard labor in a system of convict leasing and chain gangs.[10]

During the same time period, unequal treaties towards Native Americans led to a large decrease in Native American land holdings, and Native Americans were forced into 160 acres (65 ha) reservations.[9]

Latin Americans entering the country were also a target for the penal system during this time.[9]

Reconstruction Period (1865–1877)

The Ku Klux Klan, was founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee as a vigilante organization whose goal was to keep control over freed slaves;[9] It performed acts of lawlessness against negroes and other minorities. This included taking negro prisoners from the custody of officers or breaking into jails to put them to death. Few efforts were made by civil authorities in the South against the Ku Klux Klan.[8]

The Memphis Riots of 1866 took place after many black men were discharged from the United States Army. The riot broke out when a group of discharged Negro soldiers got into a brawl with a group of Irish police officers in Memphis, Tennessee. Forty-six African Americans and two white people were killed in the riot, and seventy-five people received bullet wounds. At least five African American women were raped by predatory gangs, and the property damage was worth over $100,000.[11]

In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution overruled the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford by establishing that those born or naturalized in the United States are entitled to equal protection under the law, regardless of race.[9]

Events after the Reconstruction Era

1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

In 1882 Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese laborers from immigrating into the United States.[9] Senator James G. Blaine proposed the idea in 1879 in an effort to prohibit the Chinese from taking over the Pacific slope and avoid the possibility of another civil war.[12]

1896 Plessy v. Ferguson

In its 1896 ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson, the United States Supreme Court established that segregation was legal in the United States, establishing the doctrine, "separate but equal".[9] Homer Adolph Plessy was removed from the East Louisiana Railroad train and arrested for violating the Jim Crow Car Act of 1890 on June 7, 1892. Despite the Supreme Court ruling against him, Plessy's case marked the first use of the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection provision after the Reconstruction Period.[13]

1935 Norris v. Alabama

In 1935 the United States Supreme Court overturned convictions of the Scottsboro Boys in Norris v. Alabama. These were nine African American teenagers who had been previously denied equal protection under the law as stated in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution because African Americans were purposely excluded from their cases' juries.[9]

1941 Fair Employment Practices Commission

President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Fair Employment Practices Commission with Executive Order 8802, which banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in the defense industry.[9]

1954 Brown v. Board of Education

In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court decision overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine implemented in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case in schools and required that schools be integrated.[9] The case was brought before the Court in 1952 after African American Oliver Brown tried to enroll his daughter Linda in a local white elementary school and was refused enrollment. He and other African American parents, with the help of the NAACP sued the Topeka school district, and Thurgood Marshall argued before the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1953 that public school segregation violated the 14th Amendment. The Court decision was unanimous.[14]

1955 Murder of Emmett Till

Emmett Till, 14-year-old African American boy in Mississippi was murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman. His mother's insistence on an open-casket funeral led to the publishing of images of his mutilated body in many newspapers and magazines to showcase the scrutiny of the Mississippi criminal justice system in the 1950s and 1960s.[9][15]

1960 Boynton v. Virginia

In the 1960 case of Boynton v. Virginia, the United States Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public interstate transportation facilities such as bus or train stations violates the Interstate Commerce Act.[9]

1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing

In 1963 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four African American girls and bringing attention to the need for increased civil rights protection in the United States Legislature.[9] In 2002, nearly 40 years later, Bobby Frank Cherry was the last person brought to trial for the murder of the four girls.[16]

1964 Civil Rights Act

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in employment or public accommodations. It also overruled all state and local laws that mandated such discrimination.[9]

1965 Watts Riot

In the 1965 riot in Watts, Los Angeles, an African American Neighborhood, 16,000 policemen, highway patrolmen, and National Guard troops were forced to restore order.[9] The riot lasted for six days and resulted in property damages worth 40 million dollars. It started when an African American man by the name of Marquette Fry was pulled over by the police for suspicion of driving while under the influence of alcohol, after which tension grew between onlookers and police officers fusing the resulting violence.[17]

1965 Voting Rights Act

In the Voting Rights Act of 1965, poll taxes, literacy tests, and other impediments formerly used to prevent African Americans from voting were prohibited.[9]

The war on drugs

The first U.S. law that restricted the distribution and use of certain drugs was the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914. The first local laws came as early as 1860.[18]

The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was established in the United States Department of the Treasury by an act of June 14, 1930 (46 Stat. 585).[19]

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly supported the adoption of the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act. The New York Times used the headline "Roosevelt Asks Narcotic War Aid".[20][21]

In 1937, the Marijuana Transfer Tax Act was passed. Several scholars have claimed that the goal was to destroy the hemp industry,[22][23][24] largely as an effort of businessmen Andrew Mellon, Randolph Hearst, and the Du Pont family.[22][24] These scholars argue that with the invention of the decorticator, hemp became a very cheap substitute for the paper pulp that was used in the newspaper industry.[22][25] These scholars believe that Hearst felt that this was a threat to his extensive timber holdings. Mellon, United States Secretary of the Treasury and the wealthiest man in America, had invested heavily in the DuPont's new synthetic fiber, nylon, and considered its success to depend on its replacement of the traditional resource, hemp.[22][26][27][28][29][30][31][32] However, there were circumstances that contradict these claims. One reason for doubts about those claims is that the new decorticators did not perform fully satisfactorily in commercial production.[33] To produce fiber from hemp was a labor-intensive process if you include harvest, transport and processing. Technological developments decreased the labor with hemp but not sufficient to eliminate this disadvantage.[34][35]

Although Nixon declared "drug abuse" to be public enemy number one in 1971,[36] the policies that his administration implemented as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 were a continuation of drug prohibition policies in the U.S., which started in 1914.[37][38][39]

In 1982, the current President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, officially declared war on drugs.[40] The President increased federal spending on anti-drug related programs. He also greatly increased the number of United States federal drug task forces.[40] Ensuring a lasting impact, Reagan also launched a campaign marked by rhetoric that both demonized drugs and drug users.[41] The United States Executive branch employed two types of anti-drug strategies during The War on Drugs: supply-reduction and demand-reduction. Supply-reduction strategies typically involved limiting access to drug sources and employing harsher penalties for drug possession and distribution. Demand-reduction strategies included drug use treatment and prevention. The Reagan administration favored supply-reduction strategies and focused their efforts on the seizure of illegal substances and prosecution of individuals caught in possession of these substances.[40][41]

The controversy surrounding The War on Drugs is still widely debated by the academic community. In March 2016, former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told a writer for Harper's magazine that "the Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people". He then went on to elaborate further, saying: "knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities".[42] This recent comment by Ehrlichman made headlines primarily because it was the first instance of any person who was ever affiliated with the Presidential administration publicly framing the drug war as a political tactic to assist Nixon's win.[42]

Many scholars believe that The War on Drugs had a large impact on minority communities across the nation. In particular, African American communities were affected by the political implications of the new drug policies. It has been noted that throughout The War of Drugs, African Americans were investigated, detained, arrested, and charged with using, possessing, and distributing illegal drugs at a level disproportionate to that of the general population.[40][41]

William J. Bennett, John J. Dilulio, Jr., and John P. Walters' moral poverty theory counter argues that the increase in juvenile crime and drug use during the 1980s and 1990s is due to children's lack of adult role models in their upbringing, such as parents, teachers, and guardians. They argue that children born out of wedlock are more likely to commit crimes, and they use this argument to explain the higher rate of crime for African American youth compared to that of white youth in the United States.[43]

Racial inequality in incarceration

2010. Inmates in adult facilities, by race and ethnicity. Jails, and state and federal prisons.[44]
Race, ethnicity % of US population % of U.S.
incarcerated population
National incarceration rate
(per 100,000 of all ages)
White (non-Hispanic) 64 39 450 per 100,000
Hispanic 16 19 831 per 100,000
Black 13 40 2,306 per 100,000

According to the United States Bureau of Justice, in 2014 6% of all black males ages 30 to 39 were in prison, while 2% of Hispanic and 1% of white males in the same age group were in prison. There were 2,724 black male prisoners with sentences over one year per 100,000 black male residents in the United States, and a total of 516,900 black male sentenced prisoners in the United States as of December 31, 2014. This compares to 1,091 Hispanic male prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic male residents, and 465 white male prisoners per 100,000 white male residents in the United States at that time. Black males between the ages of 18 and 19 had a rate of imprisonment 10.5 times that of white males of the same age group in 2014.[45] Studies have found that a decreasing percentage of the overrepresentation of blacks in the U.S. criminal justice system can be explained by racial differences in offending: 80% in 1979, 76% in 1991, and 61% in 2004.[46]

A 2013 study found that the increased likelihood of African American males of being arrested and incarcerated than white males was entirely accounted for by adjusting for both self-reported violence and IQ.[48] According to a report by the National Council of La Raza, research obstacles undermine the census of Latinos in prison, and "Latinos in the criminal justice system are seriously undercounted."[49] A study regarding the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act concluded due to mandatory sentencing blacks have a 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in prison or jail. Latinos 1 in 6 chance and whites, a 1 in 17.[50][51]

A 2016 study from the American Psychological Association, "Discrimination and Instructional Comprehension", researched how the lack of comprehension of capital penalty jury instructions, relates to death sentencing in America. This study was composed of eligible subjects, who were given the option to sentence a verdict based on their comprehension from the given instructions and their evidence. The study concluded that multiple verdicts who could not comprehend the penalty instructions, had a higher death sentence probability.[52]

Race and the death penalty

Various scholars have addressed what they perceived as the systemic racial bias present in the administration of capital punishment in the United States.[53] There is also a large disparity between races when it comes to sentencing convicts to Death Row. The federal death penalty data released by the United States Department of Justice between 1995–2000 shows that 682 defendants were sentenced to death.[54] Out of those 682 defendants, the defendant was black in 48% of the cases, Hispanic in 29% of the cases, and white in 20% of the cases.[3] 52.5% of people who committed homicides in the 1980-2005 time period were black.[55][56]

Causes of racial disproportionality

Two competing hypotheses exist regarding why racial/ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system compared to their share of the general population.. These are the differential offending or differential involvement hypothesis, which proposes that this overrepresentation is a result of African Americans committing more of the crimes that result in criminal justice processing, and the differential selection hypothesis, which proposes that this disproportionality is a result of discrimination by the criminal justice system.[57] Piquero (2008) argues that it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine which of these factors is more important than the other.[58]

The criminal justice system in the United States has a very large imbalance in the composition of races, specifically between blacks and whites, incarcerated. Alfred Blumstein states, "Although blacks comprise roughly one-eighth of the population, they represent about one-half of the prison population. Thus, the race-specific incarceration rates are grossly disproportionate." The research done by Alfred Blumstein and the apparent dis-proportionality raise the problem of injustice within the United States criminal justice system. This injustice is alluded to further, but not directly linked to racial injustice, because black males are the victims of having an incarceration rate twenty five times higher than that of the total population.[59][60]

Education may also be a factor that plays into this dis-proportionality. Studies done from 1965 to 1969 based on administrative data, surveys, and census data showed that 3 percent of whites and 20 percent of blacks served time in prison by their early thirties. Thirty years later in 1999, risk of incarceration was partially dependent on education with 30 percent of college dropouts and roughly 60 percent of high school dropouts going to prison. Education playing a role in either increasing or decreasing the likelihood of incarceration based upon the education and skill a person possesses.[60]

Further research shows that there have been significant strides into diving deeper to explain why racial/ethnic minorities are incarcerated at a higher rate than then the rest of the population. In a manual by the Sentencing Project, they emphasize four commonly identified causes of racial disparity in the criminal justice system; higher crime rates, inequitable access to resources, legislative decisions, and overt racial bias. “While some claim that minority overrepresentation in the justice system is solely the result of people of color committing more crime, empirical analyses do not support this claim.” Studies have shown that a variety of factors could explain the racial disparity; “law enforcement practices, crime rates, and punitive sentencing policies.” The level of crime rates show that minorities commit more crimes but that does not account for crimes that go unreported. [61]

An inequitable access to resources can result in “very different outcomes between middle-class and low-income individuals even though they may share similar behavioral problems.” Communities that have more resources tend to find a different approach to treating behavioral problems that doesn’t involve juvenile or criminal justice system. Resources are more available to middle class parents than to lower income parents. “The misallocation of resources within the criminal justice system can compound the disparate experiences of minority defendants as they move through the system.”[61]

Legislatures have been enacting the laws that define prohibited behavior and the penalties for these violations since the very beginning. Many of which have a “disproportionate impact on minority communities.” Some areas that have been significant in this regard were the War on Drugs in the 80’s that accounts for a lot of the people of color that are in prison for the use of crack cocaine. Then there is the Three Strikes Legislation, that assigns “mandatory sentences of life without parole for three time repeat felony offenders.” Next, is the Over reliance on Incarceration, in the last couple of decades punitive laws have begun to pass, increasing the population of prison and jail. Despite lacking evidence that describes prison as the most effective approach to control crime. Lastly, the authors state that “So long as racism exists within society at large, it will be found within the criminal justice system. Racism fuels the overt bias which can show in the language, attitudes, conduct, assumptions, strategies and policies of criminal justice agencies.” Research has shown that there is an overt racial bias in the criminal justice decision making. In the way police interact with the community, how minorities in the courtroom are addressed, as well as how prison officials interact with inmates’ family members. People are likely to identify with those who look like them and that does not exempt criminal justice practitioners.[61]

Ulmer findings suggest that “most disproportionality (particularly in Federal courts) is determined by processes prior to sentencing, especially sentencing policies that differentially impact minority males.” They found that there is a 25-30% unexplained difference between arrest and incarceration and that disproportionality you need to understand the role that prosecutors, judges, and probation and parole officers contribute. [62]

Racial disparity in the juvenile justice system

In the United States, racial disparities in the juvenile justice system are partly, but not entirely, due to racial differences in offending; differences in treatment by the justice system also appear to play a role.[63]

A 1994 study found that black and Hispanic youths were more likely to be detained at each of the three stages of the juvenile justice system examined (police detention, court intake detention, and preliminary hearing detention), even after controlling for other factors such as offense seriousness.[64] Other studies have reached similar conclusions.[65][66][67][68] A 2014 study looking at juvenile dispositional decisions found that minority juveniles were more likely than their white counterparts to be committed to physical regimen-oriented facilities than their white counterparts were, which the authors suggested was due to court actors using "a racialized perceptual shorthand of youthful offenders that attributes both higher levels of blame and lower evaluations of reformability to minority youth."[69] Research suggests the racial disparities in assessments of juvenile offenders, and the resulting sentence recommendations, result from officials attributing different causes of crime to cases based on the race of the offender.[70] According to a 1982 study, racial bias in juvenile justice decisions is more pronounced in police decisions than in judicial ones.[71]

Black and Latino juvenile offenders are also vastly more likely to be tried as adults by local prosecutors throughout the US, and are generally likelier to be given harsher, longer sentences by the judges presiding over their trials.

A study of New Jersey juvenile court records for the years 2010-2015 released by WNYC[72] late in 2016 found that black and Latino offenders comprised almost 90% of juveniles tried as adults (849 black youths, 247 Latino out of a total of 1,251 juveniles tried as adults during the five-year period, thereby black/Hispanic teens represented 87.6% of the total cases.) WNYC also surveyed all NJ inmates currently serving sentences which resulted from crimes committed as a minor, and found that 93% of them are black or Latino. These numbers represent a clear racial disparity in sentencing, particularly so, given the fact that during this period New Jersey was only 14.8% Black and 19.7% Hispanic, in comparison to 56.2% of the state's residents being white. "Controlling for nature of offense...for family background...for educational history—all of the things that go into a prosecutor's decision, there are still disparities, significant disparities, that cannot be explained by anything other than race," says Laura Cohen, the director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School.[73]

These numbers are comparable to the juvenile detention and sentencing trends for the country as a whole, analysis of which shows that roughly 60% of all juveniles who received life sentences after being tried as adults are black. Judges, prosecutors, juries, and police/detention officers all commonly perceive black children as less innocent and childlike than white children. Black teens are commonly over-estimated in age by an average of 4.5 years, meaning that black boys as young as 13 could conceivably be seen as fully 18 years old, and thereby easily acceptable for overzealous prosecutors to treat as an adult defendant. This tendency to round black teens up to adults is detailed in a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association entitled: "The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children".[74]

Immigration and crime

Immigrants to the United States commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens.[75] The drop in crime rates is due to a greater influx of immigrants. The belief that a third of all federal prisoners are illegal immigrants is inaccurate, as government authorities do not categorize all inmates by immigration status.[76] The higher percentage of undocumented convicted immigrants in federal courts was due to immigration offenses, as opposed to serious crimes such as drug offenses, and US-born citizens have a higher percentages for crimes such as drug offenses.[77] Arresting undocumented immigrants cannot ensure public safety, and some law enforcement authorities state that aggressively enforcing immigration law would jeopardize public safety.[76] To ensure public safety, initiatives should be taken to investigate the causes of crime and implement community-based programs accordingly.[76] The legal system of both past and present United States governments has had to confront issues of enforcing border security and/or deporting illegal immigrants.[78]

Race and sentencing length

Over the past 70 years, researching the impact that racial identity has on sentencing outcomes has been at the forefront of criminology. But, many studies contradict each other. Some studies found that minorities receive harsher sentences than whites, while others found that minorities received lighter punishments.[79] In a study done from 2011-2014, that followed 302 men and women in drug related convictions found that blacks were actually convicted at a lower rate than other ethnicities, but had 2.5 more incarcerations on average.[80]

Numerous studies have been conducted to examine whether race is associated with sentence length or severity. An early study by Joan Petersilia found that in California, Michigan, and Texas, Hispanics and blacks tended to receive harsher sentences than whites convicted of comparable crimes and with similar criminal records.[81] A 1998 meta-analysis found that the relationship between race and sentencing in the U.S. was not statistically significant, but that the use of different methods of classifying race may also mask the true race-sentencing relationship.[82] A study published the same year, which examined sentencing data from Pennsylvania, found that young black men were sentenced more harshly than were members of any other age-race-gender combination.[83] Similarly, a 2005 meta-analysis found that blacks tended to receive harsher sentences than did whites, and that this effect was "statistically significant but small and highly variable."[84]

A 2006 study found that blacks and Hispanics received about 10% longer sentences than whites, even after controlling for all possible relevant characteristics, with regard to final offenses. However, when the researchers examined base offenses instead, the disparity was reversed.[85] A 2010 analysis of U.S. Sentencing Commission data found that blacks received the longest sentences of any ethnicity within each gender group (specifically, their sentence lengths were on average 91 months for men and 36 months for women).[86] A 2011 study found that black women with lighter perceived skin tones tended to receive more lenient sentences and serve less of them behind bars.[87] A 2012 study looking at felony case data from Cook County, Illinois found that the sentencing disparity between blacks and whites varied significantly from judge to judge, which the authors state provides "support for the model where at least some judges treat defendants differently based on their race."[88] A 2013 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that black men's prison sentences were on average almost 20% longer than those of their white counterparts who were convicted of similar crimes.[89]

A 2015 study focusing primarily on black and white men in Georgia uncovered that, on average, black men received sentences that were 4.25% higher than whites for the same type of crime.[90] However, the same study found a larger disparity in sentence length among medium- and dark-skinned blacks, who received 4.8% longer sentences than whites, whereas light-skinned blacks received sentences of about the same average length as those of whites.[91] It is also documented that, in the United States as a whole, Latinos, African Americans, and American Indians are far more frequently convicted than white Americans, and they receive harsher and longer punishments than their white counterparts for committing the same crimes.[92]

Police relation to race and ethnicity

A study published by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. a professor at Harvard concluded in 2015, nationwide, white people were more likely to be shot by police than black people in similar situations while black and Hispanic people were more likely to be manhandled, handcuffed or beaten by the police — even if they are compliant and law-abiding. The study looked at 1,332 police shootings between 2000 and 2015 in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. The study found that black and white suspects were equally likely to be armed and officers were more likely to fire their weapons before being attacked when the suspects were white. For shootings in Houston, the study looked at incidents in which an officer does not fire but might be expected to. They concluded that officers were about 20 percent less likely to shoot black suspects.[93][94] When it comes to lethal force the study concluded that police are not racially biased in how they use lethal force.[95] A 2016 study published in the Injury Prevention journal concluded that African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos were more likely to be stopped by police compared to Asians and whites. They found that there was no racial bias in the likelihood of being killed or injured after being stopped.[96] The disparity in how police interact with white people and people of color was a contributing factor to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A database collected by The Guardian concluded that 1093 people in 2016 were killed by the police. The rate of fatal police shootings per million was 10.13 for Native Americans, 6.66 for Black people, 3.23 for Hispanics; 2.93 for White people and 1.17 for Asians. The database showed by total, Whites were killed by police more than any other race or ethnicity.[97]

Police behavior depends on the social dynamics of a scenario in a police to citizen interaction.[98] Within scenarios of a police to citizen interaction, different levels of force can be applied to the citizen. A 2017 study found that people of different races are treated differently by police officers throughout the time of their interaction.[99] 62 White, 42 Black, and 35 Latino use-of-force cases were studied from a medium to large sized urban police department in the United States.[99] The studies showed that certain people were treated differently initially when force was used by a police officer, and other races are treated differently when the use of force escalates. The outcomes of the study showed that Black and Latino suspects have more force applied to them early on in the police to citizen interaction, while White citizens receive more violent force as the interaction progresses.[99]

A 2014 study involving computer-based simulations of a police encounter in which one has to decide whether to shoot or not found a greater likelihood to shoot Black targets instead of Whites when the participants were undergraduate students. The same simulation used with police shows the target race affects the police reaction in some ways but they do not generally show a biased pattern of shooting. A majority of police officers' see "ambiguous behavior as more violent when the actor is Black rather than White." Thus, a police officer's judgement of the suspect could be the difference between using force.[100] Another study at Washington State University used realistic police simulators of different scenarios where a police officer might use deadly force. The study concluded that unarmed white suspects were three times more likely to be shot than unarmed black suspects. The study found that "the participants were experiencing a greater threat response when faced with African Americans instead of white or Hispanic suspects" but were still "significantly slower to shoot armed black suspects than armed white suspects, and significantly less likely to mistakenly shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects." The study concluded that the results could be because officers were more concerned with using deadly force against black suspects for fear of how it would be perceived. A 1977 analysis of reports from major metropolitan departments found officers fired more shots at white suspects than at black suspects, possibly because of "public sentiment concerning treatment of blacks."[101]

Race and recidivism

A study that considered 34,794 federal offenders took into account the race, risk assessment, and future arrests of all participating members of the sample. Though the use of the Post Conviction Risk Assessment (PCRA), which proved to be highly accurate in predicting whether or not whites and blacks would return to prison after being released, showed that recidivism correlates less with race and more with criminal history.[102]

Other studies suggest that recidivism rates as related to race vary based on state. For example, the Alabama Department of Corrections performed a study where they tracked 2003 releases for 3 years. In that time span, 29% of both African American and white males that were released returned to prison, 20% of African American females that were released returned to prison, and 24% of white females returned to prison. The Florida Department of Corrections performed a similar study; they tracked 2001 releases for 5 years. They found that 45% of African American males were reincarcerated and 28% of non-African American males were reincarcerated.[103]

Race and habitual offender sentencing

There are two main studies that analyze the issue of habitual offenders in regards to race. Both were mostly conducted by Western Michigan University professor Charles Crawford. Published in 1998 and 2000, both studies focused on habitual offenders in the state of Florida. Crawford's studies found that black defendants in Florida were significantly more likely to be sentenced as habitual offenders than were whites, and that this effect was significantly larger for drug offenses and property crimes of which whites are often the victims.[104]

Examining both individual level and county level variables, a new study from 2008 updated and evaluated Crawford's work. It affirmed that sentencing policies are becoming harsher, and habitual offender statutes are currently just another tool that lawmakers use to incarcerate minorities at a higher rate than their white counterparts. The 2008 study concluded that habitual offender statutes can only continue to be used if they are used in a way that completely disregards race and is unbiased.[105]  

Factors affecting incarceration rates

Blacks had a higher chance of going to prison especially those who had dropped out of high school. If a Black male dropped out of high school, he had an over 50% chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime, as compared to an 11% chance for White male high school dropouts.[106] Socio-economic, geographic, and educational disparities, as well as alleged unequal treatment in the criminal justice system, contributed to this gap in incarceration rates by race.

Failure to achieve literacy (reading at "grade level") by the third or fourth grade makes the likelihood of future incarceration twenty times more likely than other students. Some states use this measurement to predict how much prison space they will require in the future. It appears to be a poverty issue rather than a race issue.[107]

Minorities are targeted at disproportionate rates and sent to prison for reasons that are ignored for non-minorities. When the citizens who have been arrested can no longer support themselves the legal route, they might decide to turn to the underground world of crime. This decision can lead to harm upon oneself, open the door to addiction, and possible re-arrest which repeats the cycle of sending minorities to prison. It was found in 2010 that "the United States imprisoned a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of the Apartheid." [108] This shows a clear occurrence of disproportionate racial incarceration.

Effects on families and neighborhoods

According to Dorothy Roberts the current prison system serves as a punitive system in which mass incarceration has become the response to problems in society. Field studies regarding prison conditions describe behavioral changes produced by prolonged incarceration, and conclude that imprisonment undermines the social life of inmates by exacerbating criminality or impairing their capacity for normal social interaction. Roberts further argues this racial disparity in imprisonment, particularly with African Americans, subjects them to political subordination by destroying their positive connection with society.[109] Roberts also argues that institutional factors – such as the prison industrial complex itself – become enmeshed in everyday lives, so much so that prisons no longer function as "law enforcement" systems.[109] It has also been argued that Latinos have been overlooked in the debate over the criminal justice system.[49] It has also been suggested that differences in the way the criminal justice system treats blacks and whites decreases legitimacy, which, in turn, increases criminal behavior, leading to further increases in racial disparities in interactions with the criminal justice system.[110]

Crime in poorer urban neighborhoods is linked to increased rates of mass incarceration, as job opportunities decline and people turn to crime for survival.[111] Crime among low-education men is often linked to the economic decline among unskilled workers.[111] These economic problems are also tied to reentry into society after incarceration. Data from the Washington State Department of Corrections and Employment Insurance records show how "the wages of black ex-inmates grow about 21 percent more slowly each quarter after release than the wages of white ex-inmates".[112] A conviction leads to all sorts of social, political, and economic disadvantages for felons, and has been dubbed the "new civil death" (Chin 2012, 179). In the aggregate, these obstacles make it difficult for released inmates to transition to society successfully, which, in turn, makes it difficult for these communities to achieve social stability.

Black ex-inmates earn 10 percent less than white ex-inmates post incarceration on average.[112]

Black women

Problems resulting from mass incarceration extend beyond economic and political aspects to reach community lives as well. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 46% of black female inmates were likely to have grown up in a home with only their mothers. A study by Bresler and Lewis shows how incarcerated African American women were more likely to have been raised in a single female headed household while incarcerated white women were more likely to be raised in a two parent household.[113] Black women's lives are often shaped by the prison system because they have intersecting familial and community obligations. The "increase incarceration of black men and the sex ratio imbalance it induces shape the behavior of young black women".[114]

Education, fertility, and employment for black women are affected due to increased mass incarceration. Black women's employment rates were increased, shown in Mechoulan's data, due to increased education. Higher rates of black male incarceration lowered the odds of nonmarital teenage motherhood and black women's ability to get an educational degree, thus resulting in early employment.[114] Whether incarcerated themselves or related to someone who was incarcerated, women are often conformed into stereotypes of how they are supposed to behave yet are isolated from society at the same time.[115]

Furthermore, this system can disintegrate familial life and structure. Black and Latino youth are more likely to be incarcerated after coming in contact with the American juvenile justice system. According to a study by Victor Rios, 75% of prison inmates in the United States are Black and Latinos between the ages of 20 and 39.[116] Rios further argued that, societal institutions – such as schools, families, and community centers can impact youth by initiating them into this "system of criminalization" from an early age. Rios argues that these institutions, which are traditionally set up to protect the youth, contribute to mass incarceration by mimicking the criminal justice system.[116]

From a different perspective, parents in prison face further moral and emotional dilemmas because they are separated from their children. Both black and white women face difficulty with where to place their children while incarcerated and how to maintain contact with them.[117] According to the study by Bresler and Lewis, black women are more likely to leave their children with related kin whereas white women's children are likely to be placed in foster care.[118] In a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed how in 1999, seven percent of black children had a parent in prison, making them nine times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than white children.[109]

Having parents in prison can have adverse psychological effects as children are deprived of parental guidance, emotional support, and financial help.[109] Because many prisons are located in remote areas, incarcerated parents face physical barriers in seeing their children and vice versa.

Societal influences, such as low education among African American men, can also lead to higher rates of incarceration. Imprisonment has become "disproportionately widespread among low-education black men" in which the penal system has evolved to be a "new feature of American race and class inequality".[111] Scholar Pettit and Western's research has shown how incarceration rates for African Americans are "about eight times higher than those for whites", and prison inmates have less than "12 years of completed schooling" on average.[111]

Post release

These factors all impact released prisoners who try to reintegrate into society. According to a national study, within three years of release, almost 7 in 10 will have been rearrested. Many released prisoners have difficulty transitioning back into societies and communities from state and federal prisons because the social environment of peers, family, community, and state level policies all impact prison reentry; the process of leaving prison or jail and returning to society. Men eventually released from prison will most likely return to their same communities, putting additional strain on already scarce resources as they attempt to garner the assistance they need to successfully reenter society. They also tend to come from disadvantaged communities as well and due to the lack of resources, these same men will continue along this perpetuating cycle.[111][119]

A major challenge for prisoners re-entering society is obtaining employment, especially for individuals with a felony on their record. A study utilizing U.S. Census occupational data in New Jersey and Minnesota in 2000 found that "individuals with felon status would have been disqualified from approximately one out of every 6.5 occupations in New Jersey and one out of every 8.5 positions in Minnesota".[120] It has also been argued that combination of race and criminal status of an individual will diminish the positive aspects of an individual and intensify stereotypes. From the viewpoint of employers, the racial stereotypes will be confirmed and encourage discrimination in the hiring process.[121] As African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by felon status, these additional limitations on employment opportunity were shown to exacerbate racial disparities in the labor market.

Calls for reform

There have been minor adjustments to reduce the incarceration rate in the United States on the state level. Some of these efforts include introducing Proposition 47 in 2014, which reclassified specific property and drug crimes, and the Rockefeller drug laws in 2009, which pressed extreme minimum sentences for minor drug offenses. According to The Sentencing Project, there can be other alterations made to lower the incarceration rate. Some changes include reducing the length of some sentences, making resources such as treatment for substance abuse available to all and investing in organizations that promote strong youth development.

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Further reading

  • Deborah E. McDowell, et al. (eds.), The Punitive Turn: New Approaches to Race and Incarceration. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2013.
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