Human Rights

18 Examples of Racism in the Criminal Justice System

It's no accident that minorities make up the majority of prison populations.

Portrait of a young man in jail
Photo Credit: CURAphotography / Shutterstock

Racism may well be the biggest crime in the criminal legal system. If present trends continue, 1 of every 4 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime despite the fact that the Census Bureau reports that the U.S. is 13 percent black, 61 percent white and 17 percent Latino.

When Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, about 100,000 African Americans were in prison. Now there are about 800,000 African Americans in jails and prisons: 538,000 in prisons and over 263,000 in local jails. Black men are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men, and Hispanic men are 2.3 times as likely, according to the Sentencing Project.

Why? Because our country has dramatically expanded our jails and prisons and there is deep racism built into every step of the criminal legal system. Some think the criminal legal system has big problems that need to be reformed. Others think the racism in the system is helping it operate exactly as it has been designed to incarcerate as many black and brown people as possible.

Here are 18 examples of the racism that is deeply embedded in our criminal legal system. 

1. Police stops.

Proof of racial profiling continues to accumulate. University of Kansas professors found the police conducted investigatory stops of African American males at twice the rate of whites. A black man in Kansas City 25 or younger has a 28 percent chance of being stopped, while a white male in that age group has only a 12 percent chance. In New York City, police continue to stop blacks and Hispanics at rates far higher than whites even though they are stopping many fewer people due to a successful civil rights federal court challenge by the Center for Constitutional Rights. An illuminating study in Connecticut showed racial disparities in traffic stops during the daytime, when the race of the driver can be seen, but not at night.

2. Police searches.

Once stopped, during traffic stops, three times as many black and Hispanic drivers were searched as white drivers, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. According to the same statstics, white drivers were also given tickets at a slightly lower rate than black and Hispanic drivers.

3. Use of force during arrests.

A recent report by Center for Policing Equity found that police are more likely to use force like Tasers, dogs, pepper spray and physical force against black people than white people when making arrests.

4. Juvenile arrests.

Black youth are twice as likely to be arrested for crimes in school as white kids, over 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for curfew violations as white kids, twice as likely as white kids to be arrested for all crimes, and much more likely to be held in detention than white kids, according to the Sentencing Project.

5. Transgender arrests.

Hundreds of thousands of gay and transgender youth are arrested or detained every year, and more than 60 percent are black or Latino according to the Center for American Progress.

6. Arrests for drugs.

Whites and blacks use and abuse drugs at about the same rates, as proven by the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This study found drug and alcohol abuse among whites and blacks nearly the same with blacks reporting one percent higher on drug use than whites, while whites have three percent higher rates of binge alcohol and one percent higher rates of substance abuse or dependence.

But when it comes to drug arrests, blacks are arrested at a rate more than twice their percentage in the population. Twenty-nine percent of drug arrests, according to FBI statistics, are of African Americans.

7. Police arrests for marijuana.

While marijuana use is similar in black and white communities, blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana as whites.

8. Pre-trial release.

The National Academy of Sciences found that blacks are more likely than whites to be incarcerated while awaiting trial.

9. Prosecution charges.

Federal prosecutors are almost twice as likely to file charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences for African Americans than whites accused of the same crimes, according to a study published by the University of Michigan Law School.

10. Prison vs. community service.

The National Academy of Sciences stated that blacks are more likely than whites to receive prison terms rather than community service. Black people are imprisoned at twice the rate of white people in the U.S. according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

11.  Length of incarceration.

The National Academy of Sciences stated that, after conviction, blacks are more likely than whites to receive longer sentences.

12. State drug incarceration.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports 208,000 people are in state prisons for drug offenses. Of this number 32 percent are white and 68 percent are African American or Hispanic.

13. Federal drug convictions.

More than half of all federal prisoners are there for drug offenses. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reported 25 percent of all federal drug convictions in 2014 were of African Americans and 47 percent were Hispanics versus 24 percent of whites. In federal prisons, 22 percent are white and 76 percent are African American or Hispanic.

14. Federal court sentencing.

African American men were sentenced to 19 percent longer time periods in federal courts across the U.S. than white men convicted of similar crimes in a four-year study conducted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

15. Incarceration of women.

Black women are incarcerated at a rate nearly three times higher than white women.

16. Sentencing to life without parole.

Over 65 percent of prisoners serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses are black.

17. Hiring people with criminal records.

Having a criminal record hurts anyone's ability to get a job—but it hurts black men worse. In fact, white men with a criminal record have a better chance of getting a positive response in a job search than black men without a criminal record. This has been confirmed by a study of 6,000 applications in Arizona and an earlier study in Milwaukee and New York City.

18. Eliminating the right to vote. 

The impact of this is devastating. One out of every 13 African Americans has lost their right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement, versus one in every 56 non-black voters.

Bill Quigley is Associate Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. 

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