Statistics continue to reflect issues of disparity and discrimination within the American criminal justice system. The issues that affect the enforcement of laws and government policy can result in justice for the safety of society and/or justice that will single out members of society. With the diverse population living in the United States, stereotypical judgments and attitudes can influence and possibly overwhelm the direction of the criminal justice system. The American system of criminal justice is thought to include equal rights, due process of law; in addition to fair and equitable treatment for all people – these ideas do not correlate to the information provided by law enforcement, court procedures and correctional facilities. Disparity is defined as, “The condition or fact of being unequal, as in age, rank, or degree” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2005). This idea whether on an individual level or communal, is something heavily affected by the difficulties of crime. The conflict issues within members of society and the existing disparities are becoming ever more complicated by the growing immigrant and minority populations in the United States. From these disparities, the seeds of discrimination are sown.
Discrimination is the act of singling out a certain individual/group for unfair treatment and has been defined as, “Treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2005). Discrimination should not and cannot be tolerated in a just society, especially in its criminal justice system. There are varied causes of disparity including law enforcement emphasis on certain communities, criminal activity, policies by legislature and by criminal justice professionals during decision making processes using broad discretion. Racial disparity in criminal justice is when “the proportion of a racial/ ethnic group within the control of the system is greater than the proportion of such groups in the general population…Illegitimate or unwarranted racial disparity results from the dissimilar treatment by the criminal justice system of similarly situated people based on race. In some instances this may involve overt racial bias, while in others it may reflect the influence of factors that are only indirectly associated with race” (The Sentencing Project, 2000, p. 1-2).
The impact of racial disparity is evidenced in all levels of the criminal justice system. “Statistics show that more than one-fourth of all black males and 16 percent of Latinos can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime, while only 4 percent of white males ever go to prison. African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but they compose about half of all prison inmates and 40 percent of those sentenced to death. Even more startling, a third of all African-American males aged 20-29 are right now either locked up, on probation, or on parole” (Brown, 2006). Interpretations of the crime data can vary based on its source and these variations call into question whether the disparities come from racism within the criminal justice system or other factors. There are those that believe racial disparity results directly from discrimination and is a violation of equal justice. It is often that disparities have a collective effect; for example, biased influences at one stage could contribute to an increase of disparities in the following stages.
One illustration given by The Sentencing Project stated that if bail practices resulted in minorities with similar situations being detained before trial in greater occurrences that whites, these minorities will also be disadvantaged during trial and sentencing due to less access to defense counsel, community resources and treatment options (The Sentencing Project, 2000. p3). Another alarming trend is the use of capitol punishment practiced in cases of black offenders v. white victims. Disparities are a simple fact of our ever shrinking world as we continue to come into contact with multiple peoples from all over, especially in the United States. While these disparities can often lead to discrimination; the reverse can also be true. Society must realize that both of these issues affect decisions resulting from conflicted notions from its members. Within the criminal justice system discretion should be used cautiously and provide justification for such use.
In many stages of the correctional process there are possibilities of discrimination due to disparities. If this situation occurs, the action would be considered biased and inconsistent with the idea of justice as it should be upheld in criminal justice proceedings. It is unfortunate that disparity is often intertwined with discrimination directed at minority groups. Additional factors that can contribute to discrimination from disparity are income level, learned skills, education and connection to society. Crime and its conviction should be based on the knowledge of what is right and wrong; not the basis that one particular group is more likely to commit that particular crime. Differences or disparities should not have to result in discrimination; however, the key lies within the education of society as a whole.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2005, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated 2005. Brown v. Board of Education. (2006). Retrieved on May 17, 2009 from the Landmark Cases website: http://www.landmarkcases.org/brown/home.html
The Sentencing Project. (October, 2000). Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, A Manual for Practitioners and Policymakers. Retrieved on May 17, 2009 from The Sentencing Project website: http://www.sentencingproject.org/Admin/Documents/publications/rd_reducingrdmanual.pdf