“According to Black Star Project Executive Director, Phillip Jackson, in 2007 there were 321 African American men enrolled at Northwestern University (1.7 percent of the student body) but four times that number – 1,207- imprisoned at Western Illinois Correctional Center (60 percent of the prison population)” (Walker, Spohn & Delone, 2012). This is only one example of the astounding percentage of young black men currently serving jail time as opposed to pursuing a college education. Something must be vitally wrong with our criminal justice system, since it allows these staggering numbers to hold truth. Overall the total percentage of young African American males is almost five times more than that of their young white or Hispanic male counterparts. I find this statistic very disturbing and chose to research the why and how this is occurring.
There are many possible reasons such as limited access to public health clinics, racial profiling, unfair judicial systems, racial differences in judges, lawyers, and law makers, poverty, and parental upbringing; to name a few. How do these young men get sucked into a life of crime, do they have an alternative or a role model to seek counsel form? The numbers do not lie and there must be sound reasons behind them. In this paper I will research and discuss the various reasons why young African American males are grossly over represented in the criminal justice and corrections facilities.
While the overall white population is higher than the African American population, 10.4 percent of African American men between the ages of 25-29 can expect to spend time in jail, compared with 2.4 percent of Hispanics and 1.2 percent of white men. Throughout this paper I will discuss not only the staggering numbers but also the reasoning behind them and possible solutions or at the very least a starting point to help fix the problem at hand. “…People of color are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, as crime victims, offenders, persons arrested, and persons in prison” (Walker, Spohn & Delone, 2012).
It Starts at a Young Age
There is more than one reason behind the racial imbalance in the criminal justice system. Areas that have been evaluated are parental involvement, peer groups, neighborhoods, the individual, and racial discrimination at all levels. It appears that the problem is present in the juvenile justice system as well, something is not working right if these children are not receiving the rehabilitation and or help they need to lead a non-criminal life. Redding & Arigo, 2005 state this about the number of African American juvenile offenders, “…compromising only 15% of the juvenile population…and 57% of the juveniles in state prisons” I decided to discuss juveniles because I found it interesting that they also represented a large number of the criminal offenders in the juvenile justice system in a very similar way that the 25-28 year old African American males do.
Several avenues I researched concluded that African American’s have a harder time accessing health facilities such as metal health clinics, where many of the common mental health disorders that criminal offenders suffer from can be treated. “As many as 70 percent of youth in the system are affected with a mental disorder, and one in five suffer from a mental illness so severe as to impair their ability to function as a young person and grow into a responsible adult” (Hammond, 2007). It seems to me that if we can stop the current process at a young age, why wouldn’t we?
Poverty and Single Parent Homes
Walker, Spohn & Delone state that 9.4 % of white Americans live in poverty compared to a shocking 25.8% of African American’s that live in poverty. There are thousands of studies that link poverty and poor neighborhoods with criminal activity, both victim and criminal. With a quarter of the African American population living at poverty level it is not surprising that they also retain such a large portion of the inmate population. “Regardless of whether poverty is a cause or an effect, however, the conditions associated with poverty can work against the development of human capital—that is the ability of individuals to remain healthy and develop the skills, abilities, knowledge, and habits necessary to fully participate in the labor force” (Nilsen, 2007).
If people are not allowed the opportunity to reach their full potential often times a life of crime if the only way to survive. The United States Government recognizes that there is a link yet the problem still exists. Yes there are federally funded programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, but the poverty level is still alarmingly high. “The most telling fact about poverty in the United States is how thoroughly it is ignored” (Royce, 2009).
While there is a link between poverty and crime, there is also a link between single parent homes or absentee parent homes and crime as well. The percentage of African American families run by a single parent, usually the mother, is astounding, “…50% of all black households with children under age 18 are headed by black women” (Bush, 2004). Often times the majority of these families live at or below the poverty level, leading to a higher chance of violence and criminal activity. The evidence above begins to show the reasoning behind why African Americans have the highest racial population in prisons. In addition they often are judged harder and serve longer sentences in jail than there non-black counterparts. While racial profiling seems to be a likely source I found various accounts of whether or not it is a direct cause of the higher numbers of African American men in prison, the problem seems to lie further up the judicial system.
“Young African American and Hispanic males, in other words, face greater odds of incarceration than young white males primarily because the commit more serious crimes and have more serious prior criminal records” (Walker, Spohn & Delone, 2012). Even though they may commit more serious crimes, when sentenced next to a non-minority for the same crime, their sentences are often longer. Clifford Levy 1996 of the New York Times states,” black and Hispanic people sentenced for minor felonies or misdemeanors in New York were treated more harshly than whites in similar circumstances.” His statements are based on a study released by the Pataki administration.
Higher Up the Judicial System
Other areas that may lead to the disproportioned numbers in the jails are judges, juries, and lawyers. Next I plan to discuss the differences in race among the judges, juries, lawyers, and law makers. “The jury is the heart of the criminal justice system” (Cole, 2000). How can racially fair rulings be handed out if the jury consists of mostly non-minorities? Racially biased judgments could be a cause of the difference in numbers in our criminal justice system. “An analysis of Jefferson Parish, La., by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center found that from 1999 to 2007, blacks were struck from juries at more than three times the rate of whites” (Dewan, 2010). In additional differences amongst the jurors, judges and lawyers are mostly white males. “Combined African American and Hispanic representation among lawyers was 7% in 1998… There are fewer active African American federal appellate judges today than when Jimmy Carter was President” (The collaboration the, n.d.).
The buck does not stop here, the racial inequality continues up the ladder to Congress, the Senate, and the House. The article Do Your Lawmakers Represent all Americans, or is it Time to Change Congress states, “The U.S. population includes 12 percent African Americans, 9 percent Hispanics, and 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders and other groups. Congress, however, is 87 percent white; 85 percent in the House and 96 percent in the Senate.” If fact black members of the three government bodies above are often times questioned about decisions and their backing status far more than their non-minority counterparts. These numbers back the idea that African Americans face a discriminatory criminal justice system that starts at the top. Unfortunately racial biased is still something that is ingrained in most Americans and until the minorities are fairly represented in the government and judicial system, racial inequality within these entities will still exist.
As mentioned previously African American males face longer prison sentences due to the fact that they commit more serious crimes and have longer criminal records, in general, than white Americans. The racial differences also extend to length of time served, higher rate of convictions and prison sentences. “The national incarceration rate for whites is 412 per 100,000 residents, compared to 2,290 for African Americans and 742 for Hispanics” (Mauer & King, 2007). Incarceration rates are directly affected by the sentencing process. As one might expect African Americans and Hispanics face a harsher time during the sentencing process than white Americans.
“Of the estimates of the direct effect of race on sentencing at the state level, 43.2% indicated harsher sentences for blacks, and over a quarter (27.6%) of the estimates on the direct impact of ethnicity registered harsher sentences for Latinos” (Kansal, 2005). Per the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics in 2007 the conviction ratio broken down by race is as follows: whites 28.8%, blacks 24.4%, and Hispanics 43%. Overall the percentage of African American males and Hispanics males that will serve time in prison compared to white males is significantly higher.
Based on the information above I believe it is apparent that there is severe structural inequality starting at the top with the government down through to the jurors. How can racial unbiased laws be passed if the government writing them is made up the racial majority. It is impossible to truly understand what it is like to be a minority without living it. Some may say they understand and can make unbiased decisions, but the fact remains that without living the lifestyle this is impossible to truly accomplish, which is why African Americans and Hispanics must fight to increase their numbers within the governing bodies.
Next the judicial system needs to be addressed; they face the same racial disparities that the government does. White judges and juries are handing out the majority of the convictions and sentences, including those handed out to the minorities. It is evidenced that African Americans face harsher sentences and longer jail times than their white counterparts. “Efforts should be made to reinstate judicial discretion into the sentencing process to permit judges to craft sentences that accurately reflect the charged conduct and circumstances of the offense and defendant” (Mauer & King, 2007). Efforts need to be made to correct the imbalances that the United States criminal justice system currently faces.
“To be sure, criminalizing young Black males and warehousing them in jails and prisons will further exacerbate the problems of racial domination and ossify the economic and social inequities structuring their everyday lives” (Hill & Lee, 2010). The evidence does not lie; there are sound reasons why African American males between the age of 25-29 have more of their population behind bars. It often times starts at home and works it all the way up to the top. The same problem has been recognized at the juvenile level. African American juvenile offenders represent with a higher number of their population in the criminal justice system. I found some interesting studies that link mental illness to criminal activity. Many families living in poverty have limited access to mental health clinics, thus a possible source of aggression and criminal behavior is going untreated.
Poverty levels are still extraordinarily high and it has been proven that living at or below the poverty level and in rough neighborhoods, leads to criminal activity. As many as 50% of the African American families at or below the poverty level are run by a single parent, leading to even more family strain and stress. Another area that is giving rise to the above mentioned numbers is the fact that the criminal justice system, itself, has very few minority members. The House, Senate, and Congress also are compromised of mostly white. The numbers do not correlated with the overall populations in the United States. White judges, lawmakers, juries, and lawyers comprise over 90% of the judicially system and government bodies.
It is easier to understand why minorities are dealt harsher sentences, serve longer jail times, are convicted at a higher rate and hold a larger percentage in the prison system. With the current system in place and the obvious structural inequality within the criminal justice system, I fear that the numbers will not change. Action must be taken to incorporate the minorities into these governing bodies. The issue needs to be addressed at the juvenile level, by helping these troubled teens; their numbers may start to decrease at all age levels. The reasoning behind the numbers has been laid out, is know by most, and yet is still a problem. It is time to make a change, if not 1 in every black male born today will see the inside of a prison cell and this is not acceptable.
Bush, L. (2004). How black mothers participate in the development of manhood and masculinity: What do we know about black mothers and their sons? The Journal of Negro Education, 73(4), 381-391. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/4129623?uid=3739256&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101002202873 Cole, D. (1999). No equal justice: Race and class in the american criminal justice system. New York: New. The collaboration the legal profession. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.lfoa.org/barnone/barnone_collaboration. Dewan, S. (2010, June 1). Study finds blacks blocked from southern juries. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/02/us/02jury.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Blacks Still Being Blocked from Juries in the South, Study Finds&st=cse Do your lawmakers represent all americans, or is it time to change congress?. (n.d.).