The facts are indisputable and have been widely published for years. People of color in the United States are extremely over-represented in the prison population as well as in the number of arrests. While the facts are not in question, what is under debate is the reason why these numbers exist. Just as in a legal case, both sides of the issue have their own experts who provide testimony to support their viewpoint. On one side – which is by far the most publicized – is the belief that the reason why more minorities (especially African Americans) are arrested and imprisoned is a result of racial prejudice.
However, the opposing viewpoint states that there is a very logical reason why more African Americans are involved with the judicial system – they simply commit more crimes than whites. Both sides provide mounds of data and studies to support their argument. Although it is not scientific, I believe where there is smoke there is probably fire. More than likely, there is some form of prejudice involved. Thinking the sides of this issue are divided strictly by color lines would be a mistake. Walter Williams (who is black) used the following figures in The Washington Times to prove his point that police are not prejudice, “…
63 percent of the 65,624 drug arrests were minorities (50 percent blacks and 13 percent Hispanics). Since blacks are only 13 percent of the total population, it means law enforcement officials can assign a higher probability that a drug trafficker is a black more so than other racial groups” (Williams). Indeed, Mr. Williams – as well as many others – believe that such statistics show that police are simply doing their jobs by stopping black motorists more often than whites, since more of them are probably drug dealers. But does such reasoning hold up in the light of other statistics that are just as telling?
For example, studies by Human Rights Watch have shown that most drug offenders are white and that five times as many whites use drugs as blacks. However, blacks comprise the great majority of drug offenders sent to prison (“Racial Disparities“). So, which set of numbers do you accept? The answer is, you do not have to choose since both can be used – and should be – to find the truth. Considering that whites make up some 75% of the population, while blacks comprise 13%, the fact that five times as many whites use drugs as blacks seems logical.
If that is the case, then how can the excessive number of blacks arrested on drug charges be anything other than racially prejudiced? The very terminology used by some to describe the theories used by each side seems to sound judgmental. For instance, according to D’Alessio, Stewart, and Stolzenberg, the term ‘conflict theory’ is used to describe the belief that the elevated arrest rate for black citizens is the consequence of discrimination by police (1381). However, they use the term ‘normative theory’ to describe the belief that those numbers are simply the result of social issues that affect blacks more than whites.
Whatever name it is given, the idea that blacks are more likely to commit crimes due to experiencing more difficult social conditions is becoming more widely popular. Writing for Social Forces, a University of North Carolina publication, D’Alessio, Stewart, and Stolzenberg asserted regarding their study of racial bias, “The results of this study suggest that the disproportionately high arrest rate for black citizens is most likely ascribable to differential criminal participation in reported crime rather than to racially biased law enforcement practices“ (1381).
Once again – just as with the study involving drug arrests cited earlier – blacks are arrested more because they commit more crimes. Their findings were based on data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System of 1999. Studies such as these invariably cast a large portion of blame on the media for perpetrating what they believe to be the ’myth’ of racial prejudice in law enforcement. Certainly it is true that a higher percentage of blacks suffer from the poor social conditions that often lead to delinquent behavior, such as unemployment, crowded housing conditions, poor health care, and less access to preventative social services.
But, while that is true it does not explain other disparities in the criminal justice system that cannot be explained away so easily. Based on the results of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Report of 1999, a black youthful offender is six times more likely to be jailed than a youthful offender who is white, even if they commit the same crimes and have the same criminal backgrounds, according to a nationwide study (“Study Reveals“). The following comment is typical of the response to the report.
“We find that this report leaves no doubt that we are faced with a very serious national civil rights issue, virtually making our system juvenile injustice,” said Hugh B. Price, President and CEO of the National Urban League (Crowley). No matter what set of statistics are used, the reality is that minorities are treated differently at every level in the justice system. Beginning as juveniles, with their first contact with police, minorities can be sent down one of two paths. They can be sent into some type of counseling, or they can be processed into the system.
According to a report in The Cincinnati Enquirer, institutional bias regarding who will be referred to private treatment (i. e. ; counseling services) instead of being formally processed also disfavors minorities. Even when other variables are accounted for, minority young males – particularly African Americans – are significantly more likely to be detained than white youths (Crowley). Such reports continue to beg the question: even if we accept that the reason more blacks are originally arrested is simply because they commit more crimes and not due to any police bias, how do we explain the irregularities in the sentencing process?
Whether it is blatant prejudice or some other reason, it is clear that something is happening in the courts that cannot easily be explained away. Another issue that needs to be addressed is regarding the purpose for certain laws being passed in the first place. In The New American Apartheid, it is asserted, “Many sentencing structures have a built-in class and racial bias. This is especially the case with drug laws, which have always targeted mainly the drugs used by minorities and the poor throughout history” (Sheldon and Brown).
If the police are simply doing their jobs by enforcing drug laws, and innocently arrest mostly blacks, I’m sure it has nothing to do with the fact that some laws have been passed that target blacks. The evidence of discrimination even extends to the ultimate punishment – the death penalty. It has been widely assumed by the general public that the rationale for pursuing the death penalty in cases – and an execution being ordered – is based primarily on the brutality of the crime or number of victims.
If that were true, the death penalty would seem far less arbitrary. However, there is no consistent pattern that can be found in any state or federal court to make that case. Instead, it is just as likely – in fact more so – that a poor black man will be executed for the murder of one white person than a white man receiving the death penalty for serial murders. A perfect example is Gary Leon Ridgeway (who is white), known as the ’Green River Killer’.
Although he has acknowledged killing over 48 people, he pleaded guilty to escape the death penalty. Contrast that with the case of Gerald Lee Mitchell (who was black), executed in 2001 for a murder he committed when he was 17 years old. The attorney for Mitchell argued that at the time of the murder Mitchell had an IQ of 75 and had been diagnosed as functioning on the borderline level of retardation. He was put to death in spite of calls for clemency from numerous countries, world leaders, and even the president of the American Bar Association.
(“Execution of Child Offender“) One of the few exceptions to this trend was Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. However, I believe he is the exception that proves the rule. While much data that has been collected is hardly productive, there are places where meaningful progress has been made against racial prejudice. This is generally areas where comprehensive data collection and reporting has occurred. Without data, every complaint of discrimination inevitably boils down to one person’s word against a police officer’s.
This is the reason that civil rights advocates are demanding that police be required to keep racial and ethnic data on who is stopped and searched as a basis for eliminating the biased police behavior. Unfortunately, a person can still choose to see his or her own side of the issue despite evidence to the contrary. Prejudice comes in many forms. While it is hard to imagine many judges consciously weighing a decision of whether to have someone executed or not based solely on race, the fact remains that such decisions have been, and are being made.
Bias or prejudice can also be a subtle, even subconscious motivation that a person may not even aware of. A judicial system can be only as just and dependable as the people who design and administer it. People are prone to error, dishonesty, and prejudice. Although the blatantly racist cops that used to be around many years ago are no doubt few and far between today, there still is something at work in the legal system that seems to be detrimental to blacks.
From laws that target ethnic neighborhoods and individuals, to how decisions are made regarding arrests and prosecutions, a racially biased trail of evidence does emerge. From who gets sentenced to probation to who gets sent to prison, blacks are unfairly being targeted. From length of sentences to who lives or dies, it cannot be denied that prejudice exists in the legal system of this country. Despite arguments to the contrary, and no matter what type of research or studies the supporters of ‘normative theory’ conduct, the facts speak for themselves.
Clearly, it has been shown that people of color in the United States are extremely over-represented in the prison population as well as in the number of arrests due, in large part, to biased or prejudicial attitudes and perceptions of many people in law enforcement and the judicial system. Such practices have no place in a country that promises justice for all people – regardless of color. Efforts should continue at every level of government to change this pervasive mindset, until race has absolutely no bearing on how an individual is treated in America. Works Cited
D’Alessio, S. J. and Stolzenberg, L. “Race and the Probability of Arrest” Social Forces. Vol. 81 Issue 4, p1381 June 2001 Crowley, Patrick . “Study reveals ‘juvenile injustice’, Minorities are jailed more often”. The Cincinnati Enquirer. 26 April 2000 “Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs” Human Rights Watch. Online. <http://www. hrw. org/campaigns/drugs/war/key-facts. htm> 9 Nov. 2005 Shelden, R. and Brown, W. B. “The New American Apartheid Part I”. 22 June 2004 Williams, Walter. “Racial Profiling Puzzle”. The Washington Times. Creators Syndicate, Inc. 14 March 1999