Inequality in the Criminal Justice System

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Structural Inequality America’s racial divide has been around since the beginning of slavery and still continues into the twenty-first century. Crime and punishment have provided some of the most powerful symbols of the racial divide in America’s judicial system.

Disproportionate Incarceration Rates

If we take a good look at those being incarcerated for harsh crimes, we will see that it is majority African American or Hispanic males. Not only do we see this racial divide inside of our prisons but throughout the entire judicial system.

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The judicial system consists of mostly white jurors, white judges, and white attorneys. Are blacks being targeted or stereotyped? What are some of the incidents of criminal prosecutions? What are some of the variables that affect crime within these races? Are African Americans committing more crimes than Whites? According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, non-Hispanic blacks accounted for 39.4% of the total prison and jail population in 2009 (841,000 black males and 64,800 black females out of a total of 2,096,300 males and 201,200 females).

According to the 2010 census of the US Census Bureau, blacks (including Hispanic blacks) comprised 13.6% of the US population. Of ethnic groups, native Black Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, and American Indians have some of the highest rates of incarceration. Though of these groups, the Black population is the largest and therefore makes up a large portion of those incarcerated in US prisons and jails. Incidents of criminal prosecution for Blacks and Hispanics have a higher rate than any other race. The convictions for Black and Hispanic defendants are disadvantaged compared to Whites with regard to legal-process related factors such as the “trial penalty,” sentence reductions for substantial assistance, criminal history, pretrial detention, and type of attorney.

Discrimination in Sentencing

Once convicted of a crime, Blacks seem to face more discrimination and racism once inside the courtroom and throughout the entire trial process. Working inside the jails gave me the opportunity to speak to a few inmates.

African American inmates believe that being black is a crime by itself, so automatically, they are guilty. Are they using the color of their skin as an excuse to commit these crimes? Or are they just ignorant?

Systematic Exclusion from the Judicial System

Jerry Gray, from the New York Times, investigated discrimination in the courts (Gray, 1991). His findings included that minorities are less likely to serve on juries and are underrepresented by lawyers. His report also showed that out of 1,129 judges, only 17 were African American. “The absence of African American males in the legal profession creates a climate of hostility and a lack of trust toward the American justice system, which prosecutes and incarcerates mass numbers of African American males” (Weatherspoon, 2010). With prison sentences, Blacks are more likely to be disadvantaged in terms of sentence length at the federal level, whereas Latinos are more likely to be disadvantaged in terms of the decision to incarcerate. Why are the Blacks serving more time than the White population for the same crimes? Black men in prison, on average, are given sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those served by white men for similar crimes, new sentencing data shows (Hansen, 2013).

According to the commission, sentences for black males were 19.5 percent longer than those for similarly situated white males between December 2007 and September 2011. The commission also found that black males were 25 percent less likely than whites to receive a sentence below the sentencing guidelines (Hansen, 2013). This study can be due to the fact that many African American males are being stereotyped.

Racial Stereotypes and Profiling

Black males are stereotyped as being violent, aggressive, lazy, thieves, and ignorant; this dates back to slavery days and still exists today. The fact that these stereotypes are so deeply rooted can lead to racial profiling amongst African Americans by law enforcement. ‘Racial profiling’ refers to the targeting of particular individuals by law enforcement authorities based not on their behavior but rather their personal characteristics. One unfortunate event of racial profiling that made national headlines was about a 17-year-old black boy by the name of Trayvon Martin; he was shot and killed by a 28-year-old mixed-raced Hispanic neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. Trayvon was walking to his father’s home with a black hoodie on his head. George Zimmerman, the shooter, told police that he looked suspicious and that Blacks “are never up to any good.” Zimmerman confronted Trayvon Martin and ended up shooting and killing the unarmed teen. George Zimmerman claimed self-defense and ended up walking away a free man. Today, this story has made media and protestor frenzy, and thousands of protesters across the country called for Zimmerman’s arrest and a full investigation.

Notable Cases Exemplifying Racial Injustice

We can also take a look at one of the most current cases going on now in Ferguson, Missouri. A white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed an unarmed 18 years-old teen Michael Brown. There is so much controversy going on because of these two popular cases. Some of the variables that affect crime include population density and degree of urbanization, policies of other components of the criminal justice system (i.e., prosecutorial, judicial, correctional, and probational). Administrative and investigative emphases of law enforcement, and economic conditions, including median income, poverty level, job availability, and family structure, also affect crime.

Family Dynamics and Economic Strain

Family dynamics can be one of the main underlying factors in the crime population among Blacks. According to The Prevention Institute, stressful family environments, such as role modeling of inappropriate behavior, conflict in the home, lack of fathers in the home, inadequate parenting skills, and poor communication, can contribute to a child’s feelings of worthlessness which can ultimately lead to violence. Economic issues may also be a concern; issues such as poverty, high unemployment, and lack of available resources can create a sense of hopelessness among both youth and adults. In low-income areas, there are fewer support services available to youth both inside and outside of schools. Low family income contributes to an increased likelihood of becoming involved in crime and violence.

The Perpetuation of Structural Inequality

Structural inequality is deeply rooted and will more than likely remain inside the justice system for many more years to come. The criminal justice system may well be undermining African Americans’ access to political power and life altogether. Not only will African Americans continue to be a target, but they will also end up losing their basic human rights inside and outside of courtrooms.

Racial inequality will become more evident inside America’s prisons, with African American males being the highest number of incarcerations. Not only does this reflect the racial inequalities, but this also displays the failed laws that the justice system has put together in order to prevent racial inequality in the first place.


  1. Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.
  2. Nellis, A. (2016). The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons. The Sentencing Project.
  3. Carson, E. A. (2020). Prisoners in 2019. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
  4. Pettit, B., & Western, B. (2004). Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration. American Sociological Review, 69(2), 151-169.
  5. Mustard, D. B. (2001). Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in sentencing: Evidence from the U.S. federal courts. The Journal of Law and Economics, 44(1), 285-314.
  6. Starr, S. B., & Rehavi, M. M. (2013). Mandatory Sentencing and Racial Disparity: Assessing the Role of Prosecutors and the Effects of Booker. Yale Law Journal, 123(1), 2-80.
  7. Weatherspoon, F. D. (2010). African-American males in the legal profession: works in progress whose time has come. Howard Law Journal, 53, 49.
  8. Sharkey, P. (2013). Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality. University of Chicago Press.
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Inequality in the Criminal Justice System. (2023, Jun 18). Retrieved from