Reflections On Racial Bias In Our Criminal Justice System

by Ralph Scharnau

published with permission

The United States criminal justice system is the largest in the world with more people under some form of correctional control in federal, state, or local prisons and jails. The role of race or ethnic identity in the criminal justice system has been persistent and contentious for many years.

Since the founding of the United States and the introduction of slavery, states, territories, and other governance structures have enacted legislation and adopted policies that have discriminated and segregated African and African-American people. Indigenous people, Hispanics, Asians, and others of non-European descent, received similar treatment at the hands of white officials.

Throughout the history of the United States, race has been an important issue in all aspects of the society, cultural, economic, and political. The abolition of slavery during the Civil War era and the ending of formal racial discrimination during the civil rights era marked racial milestones. Despite the institutional and legal changes that made this possible, race continues to impact the criminal justice system.

Examples of racial bias abound today. Disparities between people of color and whites have been studied and reported when it comes to jury selection, arrest rates, severity of punishment, felony convictions, and restoring voting rights after release from incarceration.

The United States is one of an increasingly small number of countries that subscribe to capital punishment. In late July of 2019, the Trump administration decided to restart federal executions after a 16-year hiatus. The evidence against the death penalty includes findings of racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and DNA exonerations of some people on death row.

Statistics reveal the racial biases. A back person is nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person despite equal rates of use. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be imprisoned than whites. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any major industrial country. About 70 percent of the imprisoned U.S. population are black and Hispanic. More young black men are imprisoned in the U.S. than attend colleges and universities.

African-American males have a one in four chance of going to prison even though the census figures show a U.S. population composed of 13 percent black. 17 percent Latino, and 61 percent white. Racial profiling continues to be evident in police stops. searches, and use of force during arrests. Non-white arrests of juveniles and transgender individuals exceeds that of the majority population. Similarly. black women are incarcerated at a rate three times higher than white women. Those with prison records often experience employment and voting problems.

The ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project (CLRP), focuses on the criminal justice system from policing to sentencing. It seeks to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and racial injustice. The CLRP studies detention and surveillance, police practices, public defense systems. disproportionate sentencing, prosecutorial and/or judicial abuses of authority in the name of public safety, and drug policies which have failed to achieve public health while putting an unprecedented number of people behind bars, CLRP is working to fundamentally change the punishment bureaucracy by reversing the tide of incarceration, protecting constitutional rights, eliminating racism, and increasing government accountability and transparency

Today structural racial/ethnic bias continues to mark our criminal justice system. We should respect the human rights of those who are caught in the criminal justice system. Given the legacy of racial/ethnic discrimination in the United States, this will require persistent efforts to bring greater fairness and equity to our criminal justice system.

Ralph Scharnau

April 2, 2020

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