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  • Ethan Wai Chi Leung

Racial Injustice: A Prominent Issue in The Incarceration System

At a time where Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests are taking place in 2,000 cities and towns across the United States and an ongoing pandemic is raging in prisons and disportionately claiming Black people, it leads me to raise the question: Is racial injustice prominent in the country's criminal justice system? Unfortunately the answer is undeniably yes. According to The Sentencing Project, in the U.S, African-American adults are 5.9 times and Hispanics are 3.1 times more likely to be incarcerated than White Americans. As of 2001, one in every three African-American boys born in that year would be expected to go to prison in his lifetime compared to one in seventeen White American boys. The issue is clearly not that minority groups commit crimes at a higher rate, but rather the prevalence of racial bias in the system, as minority groups are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and subjected to harsh sentences. Minority groups, especially African-Americans, have shared their frustration for decades about racism in the criminal justice system. Their plight is made clear when examining the policing, pretrial, and sentencing of minority groups.

In the policing process, minority groups are not only harassed more, but arrested at a higher rate. In a report by The Sentencing Project, in 2016, Black Americans comprised 27 percent of the individuals arrested in the United States — double their share of the total population. The government’s longstanding War on Drugs has resulted in a surge of arrested African-Americans, who are disproportionately punished for narcotic possession. The government’s distorted and racist policies were evident when it imposed significantly more sanctions for crack cocaine (used more by Blacks) than powder cocaine (used more by Whites) when they are basically the same substance but in different forms. The War on Drugs sanctioned high levels of police contact with African-Americans while disregarding the White population’s use of drugs. In a New York Times study, Black people were arrested on low level marijuana charges at eight times the rate as Whites across the city. According to the same study, in Brooklyn, people in Canarsie (an 85 percent Black neighborhood) were four times more likely to be arrested than those in Greenpoint (a four percent Black neighborhood) despite both being reported for Marijuanna possession at around the same rate. The War on Drugs clearly reveals that racism is inherent in the U.S police system.

A study by Nature Human Behavior further highlights racial discrimination in policing after examing over 100 million police stops. The study found that from 2011 and 2018, Blacks were more likely to be pulled over than Whites; but after sunset, when recognizing the skin colour of a driver became more difficult, Black drivers were less likely to be stopped, suggesting that racial bias is a factor in police stops. The study showed that one's race affects one’s likelihood of arrest, and yet again it shows that policing is inherently biased against African-Americans.

Solving police bias may seem impossible, but concrete steps can be taken now to pave the way for change. Most importantly, the U.S. should prioritize diversifying its police force. Currently, according to a New York Times study, many police departments such as Philadelphia, Washington D.C, and Detroit are falling behind the growing demographics of their cities. Police departments in the country should do a better job to reflect the diversity of their community, and some police departments have become even more homogenous through the years. Diversity in the police departments would mitigate the severity of the issue, as police officers would be able to understand their communities through fostering bonds with their colleagues. Not only does it help educate the department, when the people see officers who look like themselves, it would improve the trust between the police and the people. Diversity in the police department builds trust among different ethnicities, which is something that the police force currently lacks.

There is a common misconception that in order to mandate police bias, education should be the first step; however, multiple studies including one conducted by the NYPD have shown that implicit bias training “not necessarily changes behavior.” Though according to the study officers became aware of what implicit biases are, by looking at the breakdown of ethnic disparities before and after training, they found no meaningful change. Police bias can not be easily addressed by implementing training as it is extremely difficult for police officers to admit biases in themselves when many of their bias decisions are unconscious. Therefore, diversifying the police force should be prioritized over education.

A racist and unfair criminal justice system is also made apparent when examining the pretrial and sentencing process for Black as compared to White Americans. Cash bail, a system that is meant to prevent suspects from not showing up for court, has negatively affected many African-Americans. A 2018 study from Data Center Research.org showed that in New Orleans, Black and Latinos are likely to have a higher bond required for bail and subsequently end up being detained because they cannot afford their bond. Another 2018 study, this time focusing on Miami and Philadelphia, yet again showed that judges are biased against Black defendants. In fact, the study concluded, “We find suggestive evidence that this racial bias is driven by bail judges relying on inaccurate stereotypes that exaggerate the relative danger of releasing Black defendants.” In addition, Bail bond payment plans also immorally profit off arrested suspects, usually African-Americans, as many cannot afford to pay for bail. Bail bond payment plans ask suspects to pay them a smaller amount of cash, in order to compensate the suspect’s inability to pay for bond. The pretrial system in the U.S is heavily flawed and needs amendments.

Reducing the use of cash bail for misdemeanour cases is a solution to these injustices. People who are suspected for a crime will, often enough, show up to their trial as not doing so will result in arrest and increased penalties. In fact, the majority of the time, people miss their trial only because of inconvenience or because they simply forget to do so. Reminding suspects with text messages or even transporting them to their hearing would help prevent people from missing their trial. Cash bail has been proven to be discriminatory and the court should minimize its use or even eliminate it.

The sentencing process has also been shown to be racially biased. A survey of data from the U.S. sentencing commission in 2017 found that even when variables such as age and prior criminal history were taken into account, when Black and White men commit the same crime, Black men on average receive a sentence of almost 20 percent longer. An Amnesty International study in 2003 found that although White people made up half of the country’s murder victims, about 80 percent of the people on death row in the U.S. killed a White person.

In order to mitigate bias during sentencing, the country should reduce the use of mandatory minimums, a minimum sentence set by Congress. Testimony from Wade Henderson, the past president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called mandatory minimums “injustice on auto-pilot,” noting that “mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s have led to racial injustice.” Oftentimes suspects are charged with sentences that are way too harsh due to the mandatory minimums set in place. Currently, prosecutors have all the power in their hands as they can choose to charge defendants with or without mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums also specifically target minorities, for example, they usually have harsher sentences for drugs that are used by the African-American community. Sentencing decisions should not be placed at the discretion of one, powerful group of individuals, but should rather be an ongoing process subject to power checks along the way.

While racism and prejudice seem to be deeply rooted in the country's criminal justice system, the public is gradually becoming more aware of the issue. Maintaining social pressure — using social media platforms or participating in protests — is key in the fight to reform the country’s current criminal justice system. This is something we are seeing in the ongoing BLM protest and is what brings out eventual change. Tim Scott, the only Black Republican Senator, during the 2016 Republican National Convention (R.N.C.) gave a powerful speech saying, “I have felt the anger, the frustration, the sadness, and the humiliation that comes with feeling like you’re being targeted for nothing more than being yourself.” Systemic racism should not be viewed as a partisan issue in America, but instead, the community should work together to fix the country's justice system.


Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. ‘Majorities Across Racial, Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement’, 12 June 2020. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/.

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