How the Criminal Justice System Discriminates

In today’s society, the issue of discrimination in the criminal justice system is a controversial issue. It is believed that there are discriminatory elements at different steps of the justice system. A person’s race may influence a police officer’s decision when making an arrest.

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A prosecutor may be influenced to give a harsher sentence based on the defendant’s race. A jury may be influenced to convict a minority over a white American based on the color of their skin. The concepts of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination are the reason that the criminal justice system is unfair.

The social group’s people belong to can help to form their identities. The differences between social groups can lead to prejudice directed at people in a different group. Plous defines prejudice as “an attitude that includes feelings such as contempt, dislike, or loathing” (Plous, S. 2003). A good example of prejudice is how most people from the United States have a negative bias towards people who are not born in the United States, simply because they see them as foreigners, even though they know nothing about them. Today, prejudice and discrimination are nowhere near the levels that they were in the past. The movement for equality has passed great lengths over the last one hundred years. Things like the Holocaust legalized slavery, and lynchings by the KKK are now things of the past (Plous, S. (2003). A study shows that in 1958 only 4% of Americans supported interracial marriage, but today 87% of Americans support it (C.K. 2017). According to data collected by the FBI, racially motivated crimes reported decreased by 48% between 1994 and 2015 (C.K. 2017). Even though the severity of prejudice has drastically declined, it still exists, and negatively affects our criminal justice system. In 1991, a report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department discovered that one-fourth of the officers surveyed agreed that some officers held a racial bias towards minorities and that the bias could lead to excessive force. Testimonies claimed that LAPD officers would verbally harass minorities and detain African Americans and other minorities that loosely met the description of suspects. Prejudice is present inside the courtroom too. Some types of cases rely heavily on circumstantial evidence. Jurors on sexual assault cases are likely to form an opinion about what happened based on the defendant’s characteristics, such as race and or socioeconomic status (Blake McKimmie. 2018). Because of prejudice, certain minorities are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system, which can result in harassment by law enforcement officers, and wrongful convictions made by juries.

Just like research on prejudice, studies have found that stereotyping is a natural and common process in cultures around the world (Plous, S. 2003). Plous defines stereotype as “generalizations — or, quite often, overgeneralizations — about the members of a group” (Plous, S. 2003). In 1933, Daniel Katz and Kenneth Braly held a study on stereotyping. They asked 100 college students to express the traits most often used to characterize specific social groups. 79% of the students surveyed described Jews as being shrewd, and 84% of the students described African Americans as being suspicious. There is no statistical evidence that proves these characteristics true, they are just judgments shared by a common social group. It’s judgments like these that cause stereotypes, which affect our criminal justice system in a negative way. Certain social groups become targeted because it is thought that they are “more violent” or “more prone to steal”. For example, the NYPD’s stop and frisk received an overwhelming amount of backlash and criticism because the data showed police officers targeting specific races based on stereotypes. In 2011 the NYPD stopped people on the street 685,724 times. 53% of those stopped were black and only 9% were white. 88% of the time the people stopped were totally innocent (Stop and Frisk Data. 2018). Blacks were stopped five times more because they were “suspicious”. They were suspicious because of the stereotypes that people characterize African Americans as. Generally, these stereotypes are not true, which is proven by the data that shows that 88% of the people stopped were totally innocent. Our criminal justice system is affected negatively by stereotypes because different social groups are looked at differently instead of being looked at equally. The sixth amendment guarantees everyone the right to a public trial, a lawyer, and an impartial jury. However, this is not always the case. Most people cringe when they receive a notice for jury duty in the mail, but they should see it as an opportunity to end stereotypes. A person who serves on a jury who believes in stereotypes can result in a wrongful conviction. For example, in 2007 a jury convicted Miguel Angel Pena-Rodriguez on three counts of sexual misconduct. After the trial was over multiple jurors came forward to tell the defense lawyer that a specific juror had stated that Miguel was guilty “because he is a Mexican and Mexican men take whatever they want” (Wydra, Elizabeth B. 2017). That statement by the juror could have persuaded the rest of the jurors to decide on a guilty verdict, even if the evidence wasn’t strong enough to know if Miguel was guilty. There have been many other cases like Miguel’s. Stereotypes have no place in a “fair” criminal justice system because they lead to unfair advantages and disadvantages to people of different races.

Racial discrimination stems from centuries of old beliefs and misconceptions generally held by white people. These beliefs and misconceptions imply that certain minorities pose as a threat to white society. Plous defines discrimination as “putting group members at a disadvantage or treating them unfairly as a result of their group membership” (Plous, S. 2003). Stereotypes are much less prominent in present-day however they do still exist. Old stereotypes can unconsciously cause white Americans to discriminate against minorities, which can cause bias when judging someone who has been accused of committing a crime. In 1985, Sheri Lynn Johnson reviewed mock jury studies and concluded that the “race of the defendant significantly and directly affects the determination of guilt” (Constitutional Rights Foundation. 2018). During the studies, multiple identical trials were simulated with a white defendant and a black defendant. It was found that white jurors were more likely to find a black defendant guilty than a white defendant. This happened even though both trials were the same crime and contained the same exact evidence. The same bias was found when black jurors were used. The black jurors found the white defendants guilty more than they found the black jurors guilty. These mock trials tell us that both black and white jurors discriminate. This evidence shows how discrimination in the criminal justice system results in people getting different sentences for committing the same crime.

It is evident that prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination play a negative role in the criminal justice system. Because of the concepts, minorities are often treated differently than white Americans. In order to eliminate racial bias, a new system would have to be implemented that prevents the prosecutor, judge, and jury from knowing the defendant’s race. The amount of prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination has decreased dramatically over the past one hundred years, but it still needs improvement.

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