The issue of racial disparity via the overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal
justice system is not an issue that is new. For decades it has been widely known that although minorities represent a small percentage of the general population of the nation. They are the majority percentage of the population that is in the nation’s prisons and jails. There are a lot of theories that try to address why this is such a problem. Theories and beliefs address the criminal activities of minorities from both the social as well as the individual perspective as well as the role that biases in the legislation plays in the disparate representation. What must be considered is that the criminal justice system is just that, a system. With that being said, it makes more sense to understand the role of disparate representation of minorities from a perspective of the various ways that ethnicity influences the justice process at each and every stage. While a great deal of focus has been placed on the initial contact with the system (i.e. police interaction such as profiling), it needs to be remembered that ethnicity can and does influence courtroom processes as well. Addressed in this paper is the influence that ethnicity has in the courtroom and how this influence adds to the problem of racial disparity in American prisons.
Is Ethnicity an Influential Factor?
It would be ideal for justice to truly be equal for all but research into the issue of the overrepresentation of minorities in American prisons shows that this really may not be the case at all. At virtually every stage of the judicial process ethnicity seems to play an influential factor. Even in the most complex cases that carry the heaviest penalties, this has proven to be the case. Such cases are capital punishment cases.
One of the first roles that ethnicity plays that influences the judicial process is in regard to race of the victim and the offender. A study conducted by Phillips (2008), shows that “blacks who kill whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than any other racial combination”. This has led to the overrepresentation of African American on death row. Making the fact that ethnicity is an influential factor even more clear is the fact that, “while white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80% of all capital cases involve white victims” (American Civil Liberties Union, 2003). It is alarming that ethnicity would play such a clear role in this aspect of the court process but it certainly is not the only area of the judicial process where this is of concern. There is even statistical evidence that shows that the race of the defendant and the victim play a role in whether or not the prosecution files charges as well as the severity of the plea agreement offered in non-capital punishment cases (Phillips, 2008).
Ethnically motivated behaviors have even been statistically shown to exist on the bench. This is largely made possible by the fact that judges have historically had a large deal of discretion with regard to the sentences that they hand down. It is also affected by the fact that it is the responsibility of the judge to ensure that the jury is properly vetted and educated with regard to their roles and understanding of aspects of the case. If jury is not properly vetted, the result is an unfair trail because the jury is unable to meet the challenges of accurately assessing the reliability of the evidence and testimony that is presented in the case. The role of the jury is so significant that it is imperative that their decisions are not based on the ethnicity of those involved. Still it is a problem, and worse, it can be a problem that can be extremely damaging by way of jury nullification.
Arguments for Ethnicity-Based Jury Nullification
“Jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding (Linder, 2001).
When jury nullification is based on race the nullification is based solely on the race of the defendant. There are some who are strong proponents of this practice. Because juries can never be ordered to convict someone or be punished for not convicting someone, race-based nullification is more common than many know. Those who support the practice believed that is race-based jury nullification was practiced; especially with regard to non-violent offenses, the result would be a decrease in the problem of racial disparity in the justice system. The result would actually be a more fair justice system for all.
Arguments Against Ethnicity-Based Jury Nullification
Those who oppose ethnicity-based jury nullification also have a strong argument. First of all, it could exacerbate the issue of racial disparity in the justice system because it could be used to not convict white defendants who have clearly violated the law as well. This could cause further strife in the justice system with regard to issues that unfairly impact minorities and dilapidates the system and the processes even further.
A second point that is made by those against ethnically-based jury nullification is that it goes against all concepts of justice. In essence, the result of a trial and the decision of the jury is based on the color of a person’s skin and not the evidence that is presented. If the process is to proceed in this manner, what is the point of having a trial at all?
Although ethnically based jury nullification is a controversial issue, it still occurs in the United States. The Rodney King case an example of race-based jury nullification. This case is famous because four white officers were acquitted even after there was a clear video tape of their assault on King. A 1991 incident involving the stabbing of a Jewish scholar by a black mob after a Jewish motorcade ran over a young boy. In the Jewish scholar case, the jury was mainly African Americans. In the Rodney King case, the jury was mainly Caucasian.
In conclusion, ethnicity influences courtroom procedures in a major way in the United States. This is very sad because it should not be the case. People should be judged based on their actions and evidence and not on the color of their skin. From the decision to file charges, the actions of the judge and jury, race plays too great of a influence in American courtrooms. This never ends well from a social perspective and only adds to the issue of racial disparity in the American prisons.