A Major Reproducer of Social Inequalities Due to Law Enforcement and the Judicial Court System

Abstract: This paper focuses on the social inequalities produced by the criminal justice system and how that contributes to the disproportionate distribution of punishment in the United States.

The institution that is a key reproducer of social inequalities in the U.S. is the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system is significant and plays a major role in upholding social control by imposing penalties on those who have been arrested, convicted, prosecuted, or sentenced for committing criminal offenses (National Center for Victims of Crime). The criminal justice system is comprised of law enforcement, the court system, and correctional facilities. Law enforcement and the judicial court system are two important constituents of this institution that contribute to the reproduction of social inequalities in the U.S. There is a lack of equal judicial administration and legislation which often leads to the disparaging degrees in sentencing for people of different races, socioeconomic statuses, and genders. Furthermore, disproportionate enforcement of laws across people of various races, socioeconomic statuses, and neighbourhoods contributes to these rising social disparities and upholds the statistic that the prison population in the U.S. is unparalleled in comparison to other countries. Thus, these two components of the criminal justice system exhibit prejudices that solidify the fact that this institution causes the unequal distribution of punishment in the U.S. and the reproduction of inequalities in society.

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Mass incarceration reflects enormous racial disparities as well as existing inequalities in the enforcement of laws and policies. In 2015, African Americans and Hispanics constituted 56% of the prison population in the United States. Additionally, African Americans were incarcerated five times more than the whites and African American females were incarcerated twice as much as white females(http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/). These statistics illustrate the disparities in incarceration of people of colour in America. According to Wakefield and Uggen, sociologists believe that crime has been politicized and the disproportionate number of races imprisoned in jail is most likely a direct result of political and institutional processes, racial threats, and lingering fear of African Americans, especially men. They concur that the consistent racial character in prisons is less about controlling the crime rate, and more about controlling and managing minority groups that are seen as dangerous and disruptors of peace (Wakefield and Uggen 2010:393). Incidents such as stops, searches, and arrests without reason of people of colour based on their race is a reflection of unjust police policy and implementation by the criminal justice system. Stop and frisk is an example of a racially discriminatory law enforcement policy due to the fact that it led to the increase in arrests of African Americans and other minorities by stopping them more frequently than whites. This leaves little doubt that racial bias is a key factor in stops without cause as well as higher imprisonment of minority groups (Rudovsky 2001:303).

The enforcement of criminal laws, that are violated by minority and white offenders, is fairly equal, yet there is an unequal and more aggressive distribution of punishment in areas where the concentration of minority groups is higher (Rudovsky 2001:307). A major factor in the increase in imprisonment disparities in the 20th century was the “War on Drugs.” For example, the crack cocaine offense or “epidemic” punished users of crack cocaine more harshly than users of powder cocaine. Most of the offenders caught with crack cocaine use were poorer African Americans due to the fact that the drug was cheaper and more available than powder cocaine (Rudovsky 2001:316). Thus, African Americans were arrested and punished more frequently for drugs than whites.

The disproportionate number of minorities, especially African Americans, incarcerated every year is a direct result of racial discrimination by officials who enforce laws and legislations. This discrimination of minorities, especially African Americans, who are seen as deviants embodies the idea of deviance and labeling. A deviant is someone who society believes strays outside of the institutional norms and reduces the stability of the community. Most commonly, African Americans are more likely to be labeled as deviant or an outsider by the criminal justice system despite the fact that they have not broken a rule or an expected norm (Becker 1963:9). Once someone is labeled as deviant, they may start to assume the behaviours associated with that label which leads to an increase in criminalizing acts committed by African Americans and cause an increase the intensity of enforcement of judicial laws against minorities. Law enforcement officials have the political power to decide labels people receive in society and this causes the disproportionate arrests across races (Becker 1963:18). Overall, this proves that the criminal justice system reproduces racial inequality in society; however, the enforcement of laws and policies also reproduces inequalities across people of differing socioeconomic classes.

Socioeconomic status as well as the neighbourhood where a person resides directly influences the enforcement of laws in the area. Most people who are lower in socioeconomic class tend to live in poorer neighbourhoods where policing is more intense. In contrast, most people who are higher in socioeconomic status tend to reside in middle or upper class neighbourhoods where policing and the enforcement of regulations is less strict. Based on research by Rios, he observed the paradoxical phenomena of under policing and over policing in minority communities where people with lower socioeconomic statuses reside. Minor issues were often overlooked by the police in exchange for more evident forms of crime and deviance instead. Law enforcement officials controlled the people in lower socioeconomic communities and hyper-criminalized the younger residents, who displayed certain types of behaviours that they were looking for such as involvement in drugs, violence, and other criminalizing acts (Rios 2010:54). This created the perception that these neighbourhoods, where the socioeconomic status of the residents is fairly low and the number of minority people is especially high, were heavily policed by officials due to the increasing attention to specific crimes that occur frequently in those areas. Many police officers assumed that most of the people, especially men, in those communities were engaged in criminal activity. Due to the fact that they focused more on controlling crime and refused to protect the residents, it inadvertently encouraged young men to engage in violence or “the code of the street” (Rios 2010:73). This allowed them to create a cycle where labeling increased criminalization and the increased criminalization led to increased policing.

In contrast, people with higher socioeconomic statuses in middle and upper class neighbourhoods are policed less. This is due to the fact that crime rates in these neighbourhoods are lower because residents are less likely to resort to crime in order to survive. Additionally, there is less chance of getting involved in violence such as gangs, which are more prevalent in poorer areas. Overall, the enforcement of laws in various neighbourhoods causes the increase in imprisonment of residents, mainly minorities, living in poorer communities. Although law enforcement component of the criminal justice system causes disparities in arrests and imprisonment across races, the criminal court system displays inequalities in the sentencing of offenders across races as well.

There is increased evidence that the criminal court system causes sentencing disparities and social stratification among people of different races and/or ethnicities. Further research has detailed that sentencing outcomes reveal consistency in judicial administration for all defendants, yet racial and ethnic disparities appear upon closer analysis (Steffensmeier and DeMuth 2000:705). Firstly, prior research in the late 20th century has suggested that socially disadvantaged or minority groups are prone to harsher treatment by government officials because of the fact that they lack the means to resist the negative labels assigned to them (Steffensmeier and DeMuth 2000:708). This embodies the concept of the labeling hype. Labeling is utilized by institutions of social control in order to control, mark, and stigmatize those who they believe are a threat to society. As a result, it causes a cycle where minorities, mainly males, assume the label that they are given and engage in more criminal like behaviour (Rios 2011:45). Secondly, a factor that may contribute to the disparaging degree in sentencing is the judges. Many judges have limited time and information about the offenders when sentencing them. This leads to the chance where stereotypes are utilized in order to fill in the blanks if information about a person is lacking or missing.

Most minority groups are perceived to be lower in socioeconomic status and presumed to lack the resources to resist labels that cause them to be predisposed to criminality. Because of this, many researchers believe that it increases the severity in sentencing for African Americans and Hispanics (Steffensmeier and DeMuth 2000:710). According to the regression analysis conducted by Steffensmeier and DeMuth, whites, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, on average received the shortest sentences while blacks, Hispanic or non-Hispanic, received the longest sentences, especially in cases that involve drugs (Steffensmeier and DeMuth 2000:716). Additionally, African American males were more likely to receive the death penalty than whites for crimes that were on the same caliber (Brayne 2018). Despite the fact that there are disproportionate lengths in sentences delegated to African Americans and Hispanics versus whites, there are also differences in sentencing between males and females.

The criminal court system has played a part in the inconsistent sentencings between women and men. According to empirical research, “the average sentence for males is 278.4% greater than females” (Mustard 2001:296). Mustard believed that the difference in sentencing was due to the fact that males tend to have a longer criminal record as well as a propensity for more serious crimes. After controlling for offense levels, history of criminal activity, and the type of offense, it consistently portrayed the statistic that females receive “5.5 fewer months” of prison than males (Mustard 2001:297). Other factors contribute to this inequality in prison time such as education and socioeconomic status; however, evidence still suggested that women received improved and more favourable outcomes than men. Furthermore, females are more likely to be assigned no prison term, in comparison to males, if given the option. There are a couple reasons as to why females are judged less harshly than males during sentencing trials. For example, some researchers roughly attribute this to the idea of paternalism or chivalry on the part of the judges or the law enforcement officials (Spohn and Beichner 2000). Due to gender stereotypes they may feel as if they have an obligation to protect the woman. In addition, they also asserted the fact that judges who sentenced female criminals were influenced more by intensive thoughts such as who was to blame for the crime as well as the social costs of incarcerating a woman. Potential social costs included the disruption of family life provided by the fact that sentencing a woman to jail, especially if she has children who depend on her, has a negative impact on those families.

Overall, there are gender-linked criteria that are unconsciously checked off in terms of sentencing rates for men and women. Men are more likely to receive longer sentences because of the fact that they commit more heinous and harsher crimes on average; however, when comparing males and females sentencing lengths for similar crimes, the disparities appear (Spohn and Beichner 2000). Overall, the criminal justice court system causes inequalities in the sentencing rates for females and males. Research showed that women receive lighter and easier sentences based on existing gender stereotypes constructed by society. While the criminal justice system causes this disproportionality in sentencing, an overlap of these factors such as race and gender or class and race are all affected by the enforcement of laws as well as the administration of punishment and prison sentences by the judicial court system.

The intersection of race, class or socioeconomic status, and gender is key in order to fully understand how the criminal justice system reproduces inequalities in these social aspects through their disproportionate policing and enforcement as well as the uneven administration of judicial laws. The major term here is intersectionality. This is the concept that social factors such as race, gender, economic status, and ethnicity, act as a solitary unit upon an individual which creates overlapping systems of discrimination that cause disadvantages to an individual or group of people (Collins 2015:2). Intersectionality is important because it allows one to understand why certain viewpoints and prejudices are present in the components of the criminal justice system and how society constantly reinforces them. The criminal justice system displays this concept through the unequal enforcement of laws and administration of legislations. A court case, Degraffenreid vs. General Motors, was important because a group of black women stated that the policies of the company discriminate against black women, otherwise known as compound discrimination (Brayne 2018). However, anti-discrimination laws argued that a person can only be discriminated against based on one factor, not the combination of two. These policies ignored the fact that there is an intersectionality of race, gender, etc. and, as a result, caused the continued discrimination of black women in the workforce as well as continued inequality in society.

Despite the fact that the criminal justice system and all its components aid in reproducing social inequalities, there are methods that this institution utilizes to reduce inequities in society. Imprisonment can transform the lives of the people who are incarcerated by improving prospects for offenders when they return to their neighbourhoods after serving their sentence. People who are imprisoned are normally disadvantaged socially and economically and tend to reside in poorer areas, so prison reform programs offer an opportunity for the offenders to get a second chance. Most prisons implement rehabilitation programs that aim to reform the inmates such as opportunities to obtain a high school diploma, take college classes, or learn more vocational skills which can improve the prospects of inmates in the job market (Wakefield 2010:399). Rehabilitation within prisons and jails also allows the offender to see the error in their ways through anger management, therapy, or drug treatment sessions (Brayne 2018). Additionally, the imprisonment of the criminals can have a positive effect on the neighbourhood by restoring the community, removing the source of crime, and reducing the chances of reoccurring criminal acts. The enforcement of laws by officials and the sentences provided by judges ensure that criminals are off the streets and stay off of them. Although the criminal justice system produces inequalities, it also serves to reduce the chance of future criminal acts and increase the chances that inmates receive a better chance at life through rehabilitation.

Conclusively, the criminal justice system is an institution that is composed three important constituents: law enforcement and government officials, correctional facilities such as prisons and jails, and the court system that work together to purportedly regulate and govern crime in American society. Numerous research portrays how the enforcement of laws and the judicial administration of sentences in courts dole out unequal punishment among people of various races, genders, socioeconomic statuses, and neighbourhoods, with special focus on African Americans in socially and economically disadvantaged areas. All in all, this institution has been proven to reproduce these social inequalities in the United States.—


1.      https://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1932&context=faculty_scholarship


2. http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/


3. Wakefield and Uggen: file:///C:/Users/godfr/Downloads/Week%2011_Wakefield%20(1).pdf

4. Sentencing disparities: https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/stable/pdf/2657543.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:eef477fce4380f159b3e16ac0a853915

5. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

Females and Males sentencing rates

6. Collins

7. Rios

Brayne, Sarah. 2018. “Crime and Deviance.” Austin, Texas

Brayne, Sarah. 2018. “Intersectionality.” Austin, Texas

Anon. n.d. The Criminal Justice System. Retrieved March 23, 2018

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