Americans think we know a lot about crime and criminal justice. We actually know very little. Most Americans depend on television for this information. Not the news, but crime shows. Police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and corrections workers are well informed—but only on the specific part of the justice process in which they work.
This is not a criticism. Criminal justice involves thousands of persons, each doing their assigned jobs (often at considerable personal risk). They are expected to enforce hundreds of laws covering illegal behaviors ranging from the minor to the serious. Laws and enforcement policies vary between the federal, the states, regions of the country, and urban versus rural areas. It’s complicated.
One of the fastest-growing fields of study in U.S. colleges and universities has been criminology and criminal justice. More education and training for criminal justice professionals has resulted in better quality policing and better jail and prison conditions. Education and training requirements for police and corrections workers brings them a little closer to the law school requirements of attorneys and judges. In sum, the U.S. has one of the best justice systems in the world—thanks to the high standards of justice workers, and constitutional and legal standards.
Injustice in the Justice Process
Despite constitutional safeguards and legal restrictions against bias and unfairness in administering justice in America, we find some disheartening facts:
- Racial and ethnic minorities are arrested, stopped and questioned, and shot and killed by the police out of proportion to their representation in the population. African Americans represent only 12 percent of the population but 30 percent of all arrests. They are shot and killed three times as often as whites by police. (Samuel Walker, et al., The Color of Justice, 2000), p. 87.
- African-American history is linked with the history of America’s prisons. Blacks have been more likely than whites to go to prison since the 1920s. Blacks are 8 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites.
- Imprisonment among young black men is more common than military service or college graduation, especially for black men who dropped out of high school. (Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, 2006, pp. 3, 12)
- Contrary to popular beliefs, blacks are not more criminal than whites; and the increase in prison populations is not due to higher rates of violent crimes. Victimization rates actually went down, from 1980s to 2000, and yet incarceration rates increased.
- Higher rates of police arrest and prison sentences of African-Americans does not necessarily mean that police, prosecutors, and judges are racist or discriminatory.
- Police arrest is more likely among the poor than the affluent. Police patrols focus on poor urban communities partly because more visible illegal activity occurs there in public and they respond to calls for enforcement.
- Judges may treat poor defendants with less empathy and more harshly in court because they are seen as more blameworthy, have fewer social supports, or less potential for rehabilitation.
- Police, prosecutors, and judges are sworn to enforce the law fairly and impartially regardless of social class, race, or other factors; but individual discretion is a part of the justice process and ethnicity, race, and appearance often do affect decisions.
- Lawmakers are also part of the justice process and in fact determine what behaviors are criminal, misdemeanors or felonies, and the punishment for convicted offenders.
- Laws and policies in the “war on drugs” at the federal and state levels have done more to put more non-violent offenders behind bars than any other single factor.
Is Race a Factor in the Justice Process?
In a word: Yes. Multiple studies including those noted above (“The Color of Justice” and “Punishment and Inequality in America”) confirm racial bias in arrests, prosecution, and sentencing of African-Americans.
Mass incarceration that disproportionately affects Blacks in America has been referred to as “the new Jim Crow.” (Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2011).
Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the South between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s. Segregation of public schools, public places, public transportation, restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks were enforced under Jim Crow. The laws were finally abolished when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Alexander maintains that federal and state laws against drug-related crimes unfairly target Blacks. Criminal justice has become a system of racial stigmatization and marginalization with laws, rules, and policies that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. Unjust laws and enforcement are like Jim Crow because so many African-Americans are locked out of the mainstream society and economy.
The racial disparities in the criminal justice system are not due to differences in drug use and sales. People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates. Contrary to media images, whites are the majority of drug users and dealers.
Violent crime is not responsible for mass incarceration. Homicide convictions are only a small fraction of growth in prison populations. The drug war is targeted on poor and minority sellers and users, sending more black and brown offenders to prison. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 102).
Racism and white privilege that contribute to injustice for African-Americans have been called “America’s original sin” (Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin, 2016).
That’s a shocking statement and accusation! How am I responsible for racism, white privilege, and injustice against minorities? When I support tough enforcement and prison sentences based more on my beliefs and fears than on factual information, I am responsible. My vote for lawmakers promising crime reduction and public safety by targeting drug offenses of racial minorities more than drunk drivers who cause 22,000 deaths annually, then I am supporting unjust laws and policies (Wallis, p. 158).
Lawmaking, law enforcement, and the criminal justice process are complicated. That fact does not excuse responsible citizens from seeking to be informed. Jewish and Christian communities of faith frequently read about “justice” when we read the Old and New Testament Bible scriptures. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). Beliefs and views about crime and criminals that are based on untruths cause us to act unjustly against our neighbors, thereby increasing crime rather than promoting justice and public safety for all.