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minority racism factors color

One of the most troubling features of the American criminal justice system is the disproportionate involvement of members of minority groups at every stage of the justice process. Long-standing debate centers on whether this over-representation results from higher rates of criminal acts committed by minority group members (i.e., biological race) or is a consequence of racism in case processing within the criminal justice system. Some scholars suggest that racial disproportion is contextual, depending on the particular circumstances of a case, the race of the defendant and victim, or geographic location. These explanations suggest that racism flows from systemic racism through discriminatory actions by individual judges, court-appointed lawyers, police officers, “three strikes and you’re out” laws, composition of juries, and correctional systems.

The background for this problem is a long-standing pattern of historical intolerance and cultural depictions of members of minority groups as deviant or criminal. African-American and Hispanic men in particular have been viewed as suspicious, violent, and dangerous. Such portrayals have contributed to assumptions that they are more likely to be involved in criminal activity, a belief that consequently leads to increased surveillance of their activities and harsher punishments once they come into contact with the criminal justice system.


Historically, the criminal justice system has functioned as an instrument of racism and oppression through legislation and the practices of the police, court, and correctional systems. For example, during slavery police were used for patrols to catch runaway slaves and return them to their owners, and in the late 1800s in the western United States, Chinese immigrants faced laws restricting their opportunities to own land and businesses (Mann 1993). The lynching of black men suspected of crimes, particularly rape of white women, was a widespread practice in southern states in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Such violence occurred with either the explicit consent and participation of criminal justice actors, or a willingness to ignore mob violence against people of color. There has also been a historical pattern of discriminatory treatment of minorities who are victims of crimes.


In addition to legislation and decision-making that treated racial and ethnic minorities as inferior, media and popular culture have depicted minorities as deviant and criminal, with differences between the depiction of men (as violent) and women (as irresponsible). In print and television news, and entertainment media such as music and movies, African-American men in particular have been presented as violent and dangerous. These portrayals encourage fear and suspicion of people of color. In contrast, the so-called war on drugs, a movement to give harsh penalties to individuals involved in drug crimes, formulated images of crime and deviance in which women were represented as crack cocaine addicts who neglected and endangered their children. Images of “crack babies” led to legislative efforts to criminalize drug use during pregnancy and imprison women whose babies were born with drugs in their systems. In retrospect, scholars have analyzed the period as a moral panic with little empirical evidence that the scope and magnitude of the problem were accurately presented. Whether these views led to discriminatory processing within the criminal justice system is a central question.

Such media and popular cultural myths and stereotypes perpetuate ideas that people of color are criminal and dangerous or irresponsible and reckless, and therefore should receive harsher treatment and penalties in the criminal justice system (Mann and Zatz 2006).


The disparity of involvement within the criminal justice system exists at all stages of the process. In 2002, while African Americans comprised 12 percent of the U.S. population, they were 27 percent of people arrested and 37 percent of felony offenders convicted in state courts. The disparities are even greater in rates of incarceration. In 2004, 41 percent of state and federal prison inmates were African American and 19 percent Hispanic. The lifetime likelihood of criminal justice system involvement is also much higher for African Americans. By some estimates, as many as one in three African-American men will be on probation, parole, or in prison in their lifetime. In 2004, 8.4 percent of all black males aged twenty-five to twenty-nine were incarcerated (Pas-tore and Maguire).


While members of minority groups are disproportionately involved with the criminal justice system, the explanations for this are a source of debate. Samuel Walker, Cassia Spohn, and Miriam DeLone (2007) point out the distinction between disparity and discrimination. A disparity does not necessarily result from racism. For example, when considering legal factors such as offense seriousness or offender’s prior record, members of minority groups are more likely to be sentenced to prison because of their greater criminal histories. This may represent a disparity in outcome, but one that is legitimately based on non-racial factors relevant to sentencing.

Yet disparity may result from the use of extralegal factors, such as the defendant’s or victim’s race, ethnicity, gender, or marital or employment status—and these may operate as indirect causes of discrimination. For example, marital and employment status are related to race, and when criminal-justice decision makers take factors such as these into account, they put members of minority groups at a systematic disadvantage because of race-based differences in background characteristics.

To better understand the differences between disparity and discrimination, Walker, Spohn, and DeLone created a discrimination–disparity continuum regarding processing in the criminal justice system. The five elements on the spectrum, ranging from the highest levels of discrimination to no discrimination at all, are: systematic discrimination, institutionalized discrimination, contextual discrimination, individual acts of discrimination, and pure justice.

At one end of the spectrum, pure justice , there is no racism in the system, and longer sentences and higher rates of incarceration for members of minority groups result purely from higher rates of criminal involvement. At the other end, systematic discrimination suggests that decisions are made according to racist assumptions and that members of minority groups are always discriminated against at every stage of the process. The intermediate points on the spectrum represent varying levels of discriminatory individuals making unfair decisions and institutional arrangements that work to the disadvantage of minorities.


There is little credible research proposing that minority involvement in the criminal justice system is attributed to biological inferiority, deviance, or propensity toward violence. There have been periods in history when such ideas were embraced, and promoted for political purposes (Mann 1993). There is a long history of research examining structural factors in crime (unemployment, poverty, neighborhood of residence) that are highly correlated with race (Walker, Spohn, and DeLone 1996).


Indirect and contextual racism may be the best explanations for why people of color are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. For example, prosecutors and judges look at the offense seriousness and prior record of the offender when they make charging and sentencing decisions. These are the legal factors that legitimately influence decisions if racism was not involved in those prior sentences. Some studies of racial bias in sentencing have found that when these variables are controlled for, evidence of racial discrimination disappears.

There are characteristics of the racial and economic structure in the United States that systematically put people of color at a disadvantage, and some of these disadvantages carry over to the criminal justice system. Minority defendants are more likely to be poor and therefore less likely to be represented by private attorneys or be released before trial. In addition, when law enforcement resources are focused on street crime, white-collar crimes are less likely to be detected, and perpetrators of such crimes go unpunished.

Contextual factors may be important for certain types of crimes, or when a defendant is a person of color and a victim is white. Research on the death penalty, for example, indicates that after controlling for legally relevant factors such as offense and defendant’s prior record, a death sentence is more likely when the victim is white (Baldus, Woodworth, and Pulaski 1990).


Increasingly, research is focusing on the devastating consequences for communities of color from overrepresentation in the criminal justice system. More than half of the states deny voting rights to individuals under correctional supervision, and fifteen states deny rights to those in prison. It is estimated that 13 percent of black men are permanently banned from voting (Human Rights Watch 1998). Moreover, justice involvement, particularly imprisonment, is geographically concentrated, leading to disparate impact on members of minority groups. The removal and return of large numbers of young men because of incarceration has a destabilizing effect that may reverberate through many aspects of community life.

New approaches to crime and justice issues are attempting to overcome the history and legacy of racist and discriminatory treatment in the criminal justice system. Community-based programs, including policing and court models, revolve around problem solving that may prevent criminal justice involvement and make criminal justice actors more responsive to the needs of specific communities. In addition, there is a growing sentiment that the criminal justice system should be involved in building neighborhoods’ capacity to provide safe environments, particularly in the communities that have suffered from systematic racism and discrimination in the United States (Clear and Karp 1999).


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