By Julia L., 7th grade, Krieger Schechter Day School of Chizuk Amuno Congregation
The United States criminal justice system discriminates against minorities in a variety of ways. Racial disparities are present in many different forms including mass incarceration, attacks on minority groups, traffic stops, post-conviction living, the war on drugs, and biased jury selection.
Historically, mass incarceration has been a significant example of racial disparity in the U.S. criminal justice system, and this has worsened in recent decades. A 2017 Washington Post article titled “Black men sentenced to more time for committing the exact same crime as a white person, study finds,” referenced a study that found that black men who committed the same crimes as white men received federal sentences, on average that were 20 percent longer. “This has been increasing in recent years, particularly following the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Booker in 2005, which gave federal judges significantly more discretion in sentencing by making it easier to impose harsher sentences or more lenient sentences than the sentencing guidelines of the United States Sentencing Commission. According to the USSC, the average sentence during 2008 and 2009 was 55 months for whites and 90 months for blacks.”
Sharon Green, a middle school teacher at Krieger Schechter Day School said, “I think that there are many communities, and maybe even most communities, where even though the laws are now written in an equal way, it’s easier to change the law than to change people’s minds and racist ideologies have persisted for generations in some communities.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, one out of three black males in the U.S. is incarcerated at some point in his lifetime. By contrast, only one in 17 white males are imprisoned. Also, according to The Washington Post article, the U.S. currently houses the world’s largest prison population, and the incarceration rate for blacks is over five times the rate for whites.
Currently, there are activists working to solve this problem. For instance, Kamala Harris, a California senator and presidential hopeful, has released a criminal justice system reform plan which, if passed, would undo mass incarceration and fight the war on drugs, according to Vox, a news site. According to Vox, Harris’s plan combines many of the ideas of previous democrats and incorporates them to create a new plan that works its way from the local level all the way to the federal level. Harris understands the importance of including local and state levels in her plan because the overwhelming majority of inmates (88 percent) are incarcerated in state prison systems.
One issue includes the significant increase of the prison population but not the crime rate. According to the Sentencing Project, an organization “that works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices and advocating for alternatives to incarceration,” there has been “a 500 percent increase in the United States prison population over the past four decades. During this same period, the crime rate has fluctuated but stayed pretty stable.” In addition, according to The New York Times, “The number of black men in jail or prison has grown fivefold in the past 20 years, to the point where more black men are behind bars than are enrolled in colleges or universities.”
Another issue is some leaders’ attacks on entire minority groups. For example, according to The Washington Post, President Donald Trump accused the people of Islam of hating America when, in fact, there are Islamic people serving in the House of Representatives. This type of rhetoric negatively affects people and promotes prejudice.
The discriminatory practices of the criminal justice system also extend to post-conviction. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “People who have been to prison just once experience homelessness at a rate nearly seven times higher than the general public.” Also, according to Simmons University, 76.6 percent of ex-convicts are rearrested within five years and they have to deal with debt, homelessness, harsh conditions, mass incarceration and much more. Additionally, according to a Simmons University study, “African-American offenders were two-thirds less likely to receive employment offers, and African-American non-offenders were half as likely as white non-offenders to receive an offer.”
Finally, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service three-year research project on ex-convicts, “Research shows that the majority of prisoners, particularly blacks and Hispanics, face significant employment hurdles.”
Another race issue in the justice system is traffic stops. According to a research project conducted by Sage Pub Journals, 60 percent of people pulled over in Oakland, California, are African-American, although they make up only 28 percent of the population. Green believes that “[police officers are given] an incentive to give out a certain number of tickets within a certain time period” and “they may suspect that if they hang out in particular communities, they have a better chance of catching people doing wrong things. And so that may not necessarily come from an innate something inside of them that is hateful, but the result is the same.’’ Green’s concerns that police focus on communities of color appear to be supported by the research. However, just like in most occupations, there are some racist police officers and some who are not.
The way drug laws are enforced is also a key part of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who partners with communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities, “People of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, but they have a higher rate of arrests. African-American comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses.” Deborah Steinig, also a middle school teacher at KSDS, says “Drug laws, in particular, have been enforced very, very differently in different communities based on the amount of policing from neighborhood to neighborhood.”
Finally, jury selection also serves as a race issue in the criminal justice system. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “prosecutors have struck African-American from jury service because they appeared to have ‘low intelligence,’ wore eyeglasses, walked in a certain way, dyed their hair, and countless other reasons that the courts have rubber-stamped as ‘race-neutral.’” One effect of this discrimination is that in Houston County, Alabama, eight out of 10 African-American who have had a jury trial have been sentenced to death. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, African-American jurors only appear in 20 percent of criminal trials. Finally, “the underrepresentation and exclusion of people of color from juries has seriously undermined the credibility and reliability of the criminal justice system, and there is an urgent need to end this practice,” said Bryan Stevenson, EJI’s executive director.
The reasons for these discriminatory practices are numerous. Steinig suggests, one includes the fact that “we haven’t overcome [racial disparities], partly because we haven’t really confronted [the issue].” Another big issue, Steinig says, is “[we] act out of implicit bias and prejudices that we don’t necessarily realize that we have. Different treatment of people by race in the criminal justice system is reflective of racism in our society at large.”
There have been attempts made to help prisoners get an education and stay healthy while in prison. One example is the Lionheart Foundation. This organization has donated over 70,000 library books to prisons across the country. They have also “become an integral part of prison programming, where substance abuse and mental health counselors, educators, chaplains, administrators, and prisoners alike are praising its positive impact.”
So how do we solve these problems? To start, we should abolish solitary confinement and end capital punishment, invest in public defenders, legalize marijuana, improve prison conditions, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, cut back on excessively lengthy sentences, and improve and invest in the bias training of police officers. Also, according to Green, “If you see an injustice, you speak up about it.” These are just some of the many improvements we can make to our criminal justice system. Of course, it will never be perfect, but we are capable of making it a lot better.