When the Declaration of Independence was written, it proclaimed that “all men are created equal… That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but more than 200 years later, achieving equality has yet to be accomplished. The criminal justice system in the United States provides a stark example of the pervasiveness of discrimination that exists into modern times. This paper will discuss the issue of inequality of race, ethnicity, and social class within the system, providing examples to illustrate this thesis.
Although generations of civil rights activism has resulted in significant advances in legal, political, and social arenas as well as other spheres, when indigenous peoples were forced to move from their homes and Africans were enslaved, a system of racial injustice developed that has continued to inhibit the dream of full equality (Racial Justice.) Although legally, equal opportunity for all is guaranteed, the reality is that it is denied frequently to certain groups of people. Such inequality is all-too-often demonstrated by the criminal justice system, which targets people of color and of lower incomes disproportionately; this is demonstrated clearly by the incarceration rates in US prisons.
When one considers the incarceration rate for all men, the chances of being put in prison during one’s lifetime are one in 17, or 11% of the total male population (Racial Disparity, 2014.) However, black men have a one in three chance of being imprisoned during their lifetime, or 33% while Latino men are incarcerated at a rate of one in six over one’s lifetime, or 16%. For white males, the chances are only one in 17, or slightly less than 6% (Racial Disparity, 2014.) For females, despite the fact that the numbers are much lower than for men, there is less than a 2% chance of being imprisoned during one’s lifetime for the total population. For white females, the chances are only 0.9% but for black women, the odds are 5.5%, and for Latino women, 2.2% (Racial Disparity, 2014.) Clearly, the implications for the incarceration rate in the US also represent class differences in the corrections system since prisons are largely filled with minority males who come from underprivileged backgrounds as compared with the extremely low number of inmates who have more affluent backgrounds.
The criminal justice system in the US is largely considered to be a race-based institution in which African-Americans are targeted and punished much more aggressively than white people (Is the Criminal Justice System Racist? 2012.) As candidate Barack Obama pointed out in a 2008 presidential debate, African-Americans and white citizens are arrested at very different rates, and receive convictions at differential rates as well. In addition, they are sentenced with great disparity for the same crimes. Examples of these inequalities have been quite common in the history of the United States, and there have been several blatant instances of such differences within the last few years.
For example, in the Trayvon Martin case, an unarmed black teenager was shot to death by a white man claiming self-defense as a way to be acquitted of all charges. The verdict was widely disparaged as many people pointed out that if the racial identities of the victim and the defendant had been reversed, the black man would most likely have been found guilty of murder. Recently, in another case a white teenager, Ethan Couch, from an affluent family who had killed four people while driving drunk was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter and merely sentenced to rehabilitation. In addition, his sentence will be served at a luxurious rehab center that offers vegetarian meals, horseback riding, and other amenities that are certainly not included in the experience of lower-class and/or minority perpetrators. In this case, the defense was called “affluenza,” in which the attorneys representing Couch argued that because the young man had grown up with so much advantage in life, he had been ill-equipped by his parents to be held accountable for his actions.
An objective examination of information about the criminal justice system indicates that there is a great deal of racial and class discrimination and all levels. Police procedures such as stop and frisk are only one example of biased tactics that specifically target minorities; in the court system, people who are able to hire attorneys tend to be the more affluent and white defendants who can frequently avoid serving time in prison because of having a better advocate defend them; and finally, the data regarding minorities in the federal, and state prisons makes it clear that blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in the prison population. This phenomenon is not surprising, since despite the fact that the country has an African-American president, its institutions are nevertheless continuing a long tradition of racism in the US.
- Is the Criminal Justice System Racist? (2012). Retrieved from Discovery Networks.org: http://www.discoverthenetworks.org/
- Racial Disparity. (2014, April 20). Retrieved from The Sentencing Project: http://www.sentencingproject.org
- Racial Justice. (n.d.). Retrieved from The American Civil Liberties Union.org: https://www.aclu.org/