Just How Racist Is Our Criminal Justice System?

According to a Huffington Post article, racism could well be the biggest crime in the criminal justice system. In fact, if the current trends continue, one out of every four African American Males born within the last decade can expect to end up behind bars. That’s 25 percent of all African American males born in the last ten years, despite the fact that, according to the Census Bureau, in 2012 only about 13 percent of the United States population was African American (61 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic and the remainder classified as “other”).

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More alarming statistics from the Huffington Post article include:

  • African American men are 6 times as likely to be sent to jail or prison as white men.
  • Hispanic men are 2.3 times as likely to be sent to jail or prison as white men.
  • In 1954 there were about 100,000 African American men in jails or prisons—today that number is creeping toward one million.

And, from the NAACP Criminal Justice Fact Sheet:

  • In 2014, African Americans made of 34 percent of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
  • African American women are twice as likely to be imprisoned as white women.
  • African American children represent 32 percent of children who are arrested and 42 percent of children who are detained. 
  • If Hispanics and African Americans were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, the population of prisons and jails would decline by nearly 40 percent.
  • Thirty-five percent of African American children in grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at one time or another during their school career. Compare that to 15 percent of white students and 20 percent of Hispanic students.

Lest you are tempted to look at these statistics from the simplistic point of view that “maybe African Americans and Latinos commit more crimes,” consider that African Americans and whites use illegal drugs at very similar rates, yet the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is six times that of whites. And, while African Americans represent only about 12 percent of illicit drug users, they disproportionately represent 33 percent of those incarcerated for drug crimes.  In other words, our criminal justice system has deep racism built into every step.

Police Stops Target African Americans

A police stop is the first “leg” in our criminal justice system—A police officer observes an illegal act, and stops the suspected person. Yet according to an LA Times article which reported a Stanford University study, both African American and Hispanic drivers are much more likely to be pulled over and searched—for far less suspicion of wrongdoing—than white drivers. As an example, African American drivers are 20 percent more likely than white drivers to be ticketed, for the same suspected offense, while for Hispanics, that number is 30 percent more likely

African American and Hispanic male drivers are twice as likely to be searched as white drivers, for the same suspected offense, and for far less evidence of a crime.  As an example, an African American man living in Kansas City has a 28 percent chance of being pulled over by a police officer while a “similar” (age, type of car, etc) white male, has only a 12 percent chance of being pulled over. A study done in Connecticut truly showed racial disparities in traffic stops—African Americans and Hispanics were pulled over much more often in the daytime than whites (when race of the driver can be seen), while at night, there was little disparity in the number of African Americans and Hispanics pulled over as compared to whites.

Police Searches

The second “leg” in the criminal justice system is the search. Once stopped, research shows that African American and Hispanic drivers are three times as likely to be searched than white drivers. This disparity could not be explained away by police officers’ fear of the driver having a weapon. In another Stanford Study it was found that if an officer has a 20 percent suspicion that a white driver might have drugs or weapons, they would conduct a search. For an African American or Hispanic driver, the officers in the study only had to have a five percent suspicion that the driver might have drugs or weapons to conduct a search.

Use of Police Force During an Arrest

Over the last few years, examples of excessive police force used against African Americans have inundated the news. While many people—particularly those who are members of a minority—are not particularly surprised at these news reports, others do not want to believe that minorities are more likely to have force used against them during a stop. The Center for Policing Equity report found that African Americans were 3.6 times as likely to have force used against them in a stop than whites.

Among those of all races who had what they considered “excessive force” used against them during a police stop, the types of force used included pushing, grabbing, cursing, shouting, hitting, kicking, using pepper spray, using a taser gun, or pointing a gun at them. Male teenage African Americans are 21 times as likely to be the victim of a police killing as a white teenage male. Murders which involve a white perpetrator and a black victim are far more likely to end in a “justified” ruling while murders which involve a black perpetrator and a white victim are much less likely to end with a ruling of “justified.”

Race and the War on Drugs

Marijuana use is similar among African American and white communities, although African Americans are 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana as whites. In fact, across the board, the so-called “war on drugs” has resulted in profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups. Rather than being due to higher sales or higher levels of drug use in communities of color, the higher drug arrests and drug-related incarcerations for Hispanics and African Americans are tied to inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system.

Consider that since the 1980’s federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than the penalties associated with powder cocaine, with African Americans routinely sentenced to significantly lengthier terms of incarceration for using crack cocaine (a drug typically used in poorer communities).In fact, although federal law mandates a five-year minimum sentence for selling 28 grams of crack, a person would have to sell 500 grams of cocaine powder to receive the same federal sentence.   

Because a drug conviction brings life-long penalties and exclusions after the prison sentence is over, millions of Americans who were harshly sentenced for drug possession (when there was no “victim” in the offense), are prohibited from voting, obtaining a professional license, receiving federal student aid for higher education, accessing public assistance and a number of other opportunities.

Since far more African Americans are harshly sentenced for drug crimes, the above exclusions are also much more likely to hurt those of color.  According to the Bureau of Justice, 208,000 people are currently in state prisons as a result of a drug offense. Of those 208,000 people, 68 percent are African American or Hispanic.

The United States as “Jailer”

Even though the United States only has 5 percent of the world’s population, we house a full 25 percent of all prisoners in the world—in other words, we are, far and away, the world’s largest jailer. Since 1970, the prison population of the United States has increased by 700 percent. This translates into the fact that one out of every 31 adults is currently under some type of “correction,” whether that is jail, prison, probation, or community service. We do this despite the fact that our nation is practically bankrupt, and the annual cost for a prisoner in minimum security is $21,006, while the annual cost for a prisoner in maximum security is $33,930.

African Americans and the Criminal Justice System

As a whole, African Americans simply have a different relationship with our criminal justice system than white Americans have. This cannot help but influence how African Americans think about the criminal justice system, and, in fact, African Americans are far less likely to believe that police officers are honest and ethical than white Americans. There is less overall confidence in the criminal justice system among African Americans, which, when considering the facts listed above, should not be all that surprising.

Has Racism in the Criminal Justice System Worsened or Improved Over the Years?

Anyone old enough will remember the riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King incident. The African American community in and around Los Angeles had long-complained of police brutality being directed much more often toward those of color. In 1991, a bystander took a video of police officers brutally beating an African American man following a car chase. Despite the clear evidence shown on the videotape, the jury acquitted all four police officers on their charges of using excessive force and across the city, riots erupted.

The case went to federal court, and, eventually, two of the police officers were convicted of police brutality. Despite this, racism has continued to taint the American criminal justice system, primarily being exhibited among all African Americans and among Hispanic males. As far back as 1975, criminologist Robert Staples asserted our legal system was made by white men to protect white interests, keeping minorities “down.” A dozen years later, sociologist William Wilbanks rejected this theory, claiming inequalities in the system were a result of poverty and prior arrests of the defendants, rather than racism.

Since that time, the argument often turns in to a heated debate—Are more minorities mired in poverty, therefore subject to committing more crimes, leading to a higher rate of incarceration, or is the problem truly one of racism? In 1985, Sheri Lynn Johnson, a law professor at Cornell, concluded that “race of the defendant significantly and directly affects the determination of guilt.” Johnson found that white jurors were much more likely to find a black defendant guilty than a white defendant, even when mock trials offered up the same crime and the exact same evidence.

Mississippi and Racism in the Criminal Justice System

Statistics clearly show that Mississippi is no different from other states regarding racism in the criminal justice system—and could actually be worse than some states. African Americans account for about 37 percent of the total population in the state of Mississippi, but account for 61 percent of the state’s prison population. The state of Mississippi actually has the third-lowest lockup disparity across the United States, even though it incarcerates African Americans at about 3.5 times the rate of whites. Like other states across the nation, Mississippi courts are three times as likely to sentence an African American to prison time for drug crimes than a white person.

Since African Americans in the state of Mississippi are more likely to spend time in prison for drug-related offenses, they are much more vulnerable to Mississippi’s “three strikes” law, requiring those who have served at least one year for two prior felonies to receive the maximum prison term for a third conviction, with no parole eligibility. At least thirty states have begun considering policies which would result in an criminal justice system which is equitable regarding race, and Mississippi is among those states.

Getting the Help You Need

If you are the victim of racism in the criminal justice system, it is important that you contact an experienced Mississippi criminal defense attorney as soon as possible following your arrest. Your attorney will fight your charges aggressively, determining whether racism was a factor in your arrest. Having a knowledgeable Mississippi criminal defense attorney in your corner can help ensure your rights and your future are properly protected.

At Coxwell & Associates, PLLC, our attorneys believe in fighting aggressively for our clients and we can build a defense that is designed to expose the holes in the prosecution’s case against you. Contact Coxwell & Associates today at 1-601-948-1600, 1-877-231-1600 or via the button below. 


Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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