Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice


The United States has made remarkable process towards ensuring fairness and equal treatment of her people under the citizen’s law (Iguchi et al., 2005). But one critical area that has fundamentally lagged behind is its criminal justice system that has glaring racial disparities. Cole (2000) added that racial disparity exists when the proportion of a racial group within the control system exceeds the proportion of such groups in the general population. The criminal laws look neutral, but are massively biased (Iguchi et al., 2005). The prevalence of racial disparity in the criminal justice system is troubling criminal justice issues. Ethnic and racial disparities exist in virtually all jurisdictions ranging from arrests to parole (Britt, 2000). Amid remarkable social progress in most areas of American life, the disparities have persisted for years with the pattern exacerbating in recent years.

Mustard (2001) argues that racial inequality is on the rise when it should be taking a downward projection. Academic and public attention has focused on the causes and consequences of the disparities (McCord et al., 2011). According to research and analysis, criminal justice processing, broader social policy, influences of crime rates, legislative policies, law enforcement emphasis of particular communities and different levels of criminal activity are contributing factors (Iguchi et al., 2005). The major gains in prosperity are not equitably shared across the society. Due to this, many segments of the American population are severely marginalized. Racial disparity fosters public mistrust in the criminal justice system that impedes the ability of the justice system to promote public safety. The dissimilar treatment of people based on race results to illegitimate racial disparity in the criminal justice system (Iguchi et al., 2005 & Cole, 2000).

Some instances involve racial bias, while others may reflect factors that are associated with race. Disparity results from unguided institution-level decisions that are based on race. Structural racism can cause or worsen racial disparity since it is highly correlated with race (Mustard, 2001). Racial disparity defies the fundamental principles upon which the criminal justice rests. It is an embodiment of total rejection of the principles of equal justice. A commitment to fairness, public safety and justice compels various professionals to address unjust treatment and where it exists (Walker et al., 2011). It is against this backdrop that this paper attempts to review the causes, impacts and ways that can help reduce disparities in the criminal justice and sanitize the justice structure.


A report on racial disparity by The Sentencing Project (TSP, 2008) identifies several aspects that are crucial in addressing racial disparities that exist within the criminal justice systems. Cumulative nature of racial disparities is one aspect in which racial disparity builds at each stage in the justice continuum, ranging from arrest through parole rather than the results of actions at any single stage. TSP report (2008) further states that effective communication across players involved in various decision stages in the system should be encouraged in order to combat unwarranted disparities. The other aspect is for the stakeholders of the justice system to know what works at every point and what cannot work in others (Walker et al., 2011). It believes that each point requires a unique strategy that depends on the degree of the disparity and how the actions of each component affect specific populations. Without informed leaders of criminal justice, the change of system is not possible (Hartney et al., 2009), since the leaders must be willing to commit both agency and personal resources to measuring and addressing racial disparity in each stage of the justice system. Minority populations are the most affected by racial disparity in the justice system. They have continued to face unrelenting prejudice in regards to the general treatment, incarceration and access to social amenities.

Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System: The Impacts

Both statistics at the national level and community level indicate a cumulative impact of racial disparity through each stage of decision in the justice system (Hartney et al., 2009). A decision made at one point results in increasing disparities at the stages that follow. For example, minorities are detained before trial as a result of bail practices compared to whites. They are also disadvantaged during trial and the subsequent sentencing due to reduced access to defense counsel, treatment options and community resources (TSP, 2009). A recent study of 13, 566 traffic stops initiated by officers in the Mid-Western city revealed that minority drivers were being stopped at higher rates than whites (Walker et al., 2011). The rate at which they were searched for contraband was higher than their white counterparts, despite the likelihood of finding contraband on white motorists than black motorists.

A New York study revealed that the possibility of detaining minorities charged with felonies was higher than that of detaining whites with the same offense. The research concluded that 10% of minorities that were detained in New York City. Another 33% detained elsewhere would have been released ahead of arraignment if minorities were detained at the rate of comparably situated whites (McCord et al., 2011). Of the total number of jail inmates, thirty-eight percent were African American compared to thirteen percent share of the overall population. Studies revealed that the population of Latinos was 19% of the prison and jail population, compared to fifteen percent share of the overall population (Hartney et al., 2009). The chances that a black man born in 2001 would spend time in prison at some stage in his life stood at thirty-two percent. A Hispanic male and white male had 17% and 16% chances respectively (Hartney et al., 2009). The impact of racial disparity was evident based on research. The juveniles were not spared racial injustice. For example, 17% of the general population were African American youth. Forty-six percent of the population consisted of juvenile arrests while another 31% were referrals to the juvenile court (Hartney et al., 2009).

Causes of Racial Disparity in The Criminal System

Possible causes of racial disparity are manifold. They include inequitable access to resources, higher crime rates, legislative decisions and overt racial bias. The first three causes are analyzed to provide further insights on why and how the justice systems discriminates a disadvantaged section of the society.

High Crime Rates

Studies reveal that most crimes are not reported to the police. The drawing of conclusions regarding the offenders was not an easy task. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report provided reliable data only to the extent of the arrests (Britt, 2000). But the figures were of those who committed offenses, but were not arrested. Reports indicate that African Americans were disproportionately involved in crimes (Iguchi et al., 2005) and the percentage of arrests for violent crime and property crime stood at 39% and 31% respectively in African Americans (Cole, 2000). Another source was found in victimization surveys in which victims identified perpetrators of crime (TSP, 2009). Race findings from the surveys were fairly consistent with arrest data for many offenses. The contexts of the arrests vary from police activity in cleared crimes reported and crimes that police observe themselves (Hartney et al., 2009). The figures indicating arrests represent the frequency in which crimes are reported, decisions by the police regarding those offences and vulnerability of certain crimes to arrest. Race and class have great impact on the likelihood of involvement with criminal justice. Reports indicate that individuals of low income are over-represented at every point of the criminal justice system. People of color are widely acknowledged to have low income disproportionately. Mauer et al. (2007) assert that the representation of minority in the justice system is a result of involvement of people of color in more crime. But empirical studies reject the claim. Mustard (2001) conducted a study that reviewed thirty-two state-level studies of the decision to jail and the length of sentence imposed. He concluded that African Americans and Latinos have a greater likelihood of facing jail than whites and in some cases receive longer sentences.

Cole (2000) furthers the belief that the dynamics are true in respect of drug offenses in which African Americans are overly represented in offenses relating to drugs. A review of the rate of reported drug use among African Americans reveals racial disparity in the treatment among drug arrestees. A report by the US department of Health and Human Services revealed that 14% of drug users were African Americans in 2006, a figure that was slightly higher than the percentage of the general population (Hartney et al., 2009). This figure did not tally with the percentage of African Americans arrested in the same year for drug offenses. 35% of African Americans were arrested for drug offenses while 53% of drug convictions and 45% of drug offenders have been in prison since 2004.

Crime history is another factor that continues to worsen the disparity rate of incarceration among minority groups. The likelihood of receiving a longer prison term for new offenses is contingent upon the seriousness of a prior criminal record. Cole (2000) posits that arrests are partly functions of a location. Areas that have high cases of reported crimes are more likely to have a high police presence and consequently high arrests of offenders. These areas are predominantly in the strongholds of the minority. Mauer et al. (2007) found out that despite adjusting criminal history, the level of seriousness of the offense among the youth in the minority areas was more than that of the white youth. The minorities were detained, subjected to formal charges, transferred to criminal courts and jailed (Britt, 2000). An increase in the likelihood of repeating an offense and facing subsequent harsher punishments increased if a criminal record was established at an early age. Britt (2000) documented a complex interaction among factors such as race, age, employment, ethnicity and sex on the possibility of incarceration among offenders in three different cities. Significant race effects were found among adults in two of the three cities.

Inequitable Access to Resources

According to Cole (2000), access to resources follows the considerations of class and race. The background of the people partly determines the amount of resources they receive. Studies by (Iguchi et al., 2005) revealed a significant variation in the quality and quantity of resources that are distributed to minority groups. The social responses accorded to minority communities are minimal. Mustard (2001) posits that racial disparities are partly related to the volume of crimes that minorities commit and forms a background upon which resources are allocated. Analysis of trajectories suggests that even though delinquency cuts across race and class lines, the influence of society significantly influences the course of a potential criminal career (Mauer et al., 2007). Social services, community interventions and law enforcement are critical in the determination of outcomes (Walker et al., 2011). Broad policy decisions which regard economic investments in certain communities, prospects of employment opportunities and provision of adequate educational opportunities depend on the decisions regarding the most effective balance.

Inequality in resource distribution resulted in different outcomes between middle-class and the lower-class individuals despite sharing common behavioral problems (Iguchi et al., 2005). Individual and communities that have adequate access to resources usually employ a different approach to behavioral problems outside the criminal justice systems. A middle-class parent whose child displays behaviors that are antisocial usually precipitate delinquency (Hartney et al., 2009). Such traits include poor grades or cooperation with negative peers. Such a parent can explore different strategies, including discussing psychological problems, learning disabilities and substance abuse with a health care professional before the child becomes a delinquent (Britt, 2000).

The availability of resources enables them to seek tutorial, therapeutic and counseling services. Hartney et al. (2009) argues that in case of unexpected arrests, such parents can explore alternative interventions that can replace detention for wrongdoing thus raising the chances that middle-class youth will be diverted from the system. Minority groups have to depend on the criminal justice system as a basic response to the problems that bedevil the society (McCord et al., 2011). It is a verdict that constrains the daily practice of the criminal justice practitioners (Mauer et al., 2007), and the reason police make frequent arrests in low-income areas (Britt, 2000). The people living there are not equipped with available alternatives that can deal with drug problems. Misallocation of resources within the justice system can complicate the disparate experiences of defendants of minorities as they move through the system. TSP report (2008) points out examples under which misallocated resources can affect minorities. Pretrial release, bail instruments and release policies may prejudice the less fortunate, especially if the release systems use electronic monitoring that would require telephone in homes (Mustard, 2001). In case of juvenile criminal justice system, the screening instruments require that a youth be released to a legal guardian. The resources necessary to treat addiction and pay consultation fees may be unavailable through public funding. TSP report (2008) states that public defenders with large caseloads may not develop alternative programs to assist minorities.

Legislative Decisions

Legislatures at the federal and local governments create the criminal justice system through enactment of laws that define a behavior that is prohibited (Mustard, 2001). They also prescribe penalties for violation of those laws and the processes by which the cases should be determined and disposed. Walker et al. (2011) posits that some of the laws have a disproportionate impact on the minority communities. For example, drug policies are discriminatory. Cole (2000) argues the policies have a deep effect on the number and composition of people who are incarcerated as a result of drug offenses. The rate of incarceration of people on the basis of color far exceeds their proportion of the drug-using population (Walker et al., 2011 & Iguchi et al., 2005). This is partly due to law enforcement practices and also related to sentencing policies enacted in 1980s at the federal and state level. States passed laws that assigned compulsory sentences of life without parole for offenders that committed felony for three times.

Unlike most policies of criminal justice that quickly gain support of the public, the motive behind the three-strike legislation was prompted by a highly specialized event. Such legislation encourages overly punitive policy responses. The result of the three-strike laws seen excessive imprisonment of most offenders, especially the minorities (Mauer et al., 2007). The draconian legislation appeared to have to effect in lowering crime. Most of the legislation passed over depended on incarceration. Legislatures increasingly passed punitive laws that only saw rapid growth of jail populations. Britt (2000) and Mustard (2001) posit that the increase in the use of jails did not lower the rate of crime. There was no persuasive evidence that incarceration strategies were the only effective way of controlling crime. TSP report (2008) supported the observation by stating that very little in regards to training and rehabilitation or education occurred in prisons. Released inmates faced myriad obstacles when they attempted to reenter the society. Mustard (2001) argued that unless the legislation take regard to the plight of minorities, disparities in criminal justice systems will continue to permeate a wider spectrum of the society for which the founding documents declared to accord fairness.

Overt Racial Bias

TSP report (2009) states that as long as racism exists in the wider society, it will always be found in the criminal justice system. McCord et al. (2011) compounds this belief by adding that racism fuels bias that show in the attitudes, conduct, strategies, language and policies of criminal justice system. Overt bias generates instances that can lead to improper use of discretion by actors within the criminal justice system (TSP, 2009). In the recent past, overt racist attitudes were common in many parts of the system and were considered out of bounds for people of color (Britt, 2000). In spite of the safeguards that were put in place to mitigate overt racism, it still manages to flourish secretly and in ways that are more subtle. Walker et al. (2011) posited that such bias can manifest in many forms. For example, it manifests in poor interactions during policing within the community and denotes lack of respect. Minority defendants and attorneys are addressed in tones that suggest that they are second-class citizens during court sessions (Mauer et al., 2007). Officials who have negative interactions with the family members of inmates increase their level of belligerence towards the inmates. Criminal justice practitioners have a tendency to identify with those that look like them (Mustard, 2001). Such bias poses serious threat to lasting fairness that the criminal justice system should provide and for which it has fundamentally failed to enhance.


This study adopted a qualitative research paradigm in which several academic documents were reviewed. Books, papers, journals and other published sources provided useful literature in understanding the scope of racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Comparisons and contrasts of thought and analyses from different scholars were outlined in order to broaden the perspectives of readers. The researcher identified areas of convergence and made useful recommendations that would help in conducting future evaluation of their applicability.


Disparities in the criminal justice system can be addressed in a number of ways. Professionals can seek to influence the process by working together and advocating for rapid changes in the systems (TSP, 2009). They can exercise discretion as decision makers to offset the impact that racial disparity presents, whether it results from a larger political or social context or from the previous decisions made within the system. It is incumbent upon professionals to find awareness of the wider social context useful in developing and formulating strategies to ensure that decisions made within the system help in the reduction of disparity. Since disparities result from various stages in the criminal justice system (Mustard, 2001), the decision-making points can provide an opportunity for professionals to ensure that people get fair treatment.

Proper strategies are needed in order to tackle the problem at every stage in the criminal justice system in a manner that is organized and coordinated. Law enforcement resources should be focused on poor neighborhoods. The public safety strategy should not only consist of arrest and subsequent prosecution. There is need for sufficient economic, social and educational resources to cater for the racially discriminated part of the population. Legislation should not bias on minorities. Laws that were enacted in earlier should be reviewed to ensure that they are in harmony with the existing bill of rights and fundamental freedoms. The law should spell out sentences that punish offenders on an equal basis, regardless of the color of their skin, unlike before when whites had sense of protection against the force of the law.






















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