Is the Criminal Justice System Prejudicial?

At first, I thought that it is not. But after doing some research, I was convinced to believe the opposite. Prejudice can be defined as the preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. Bias is the prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.

To introduce why I have come to believe that the criminal justice system is prejudicial, I want to share a story that I found during my research : “In 1976, Adolph Lyons, a 24-year-old black man was pulled over by four Los Angeles police officers for driving with a broken taillight. The cops exited their squad cars with their guns drawn, ordering Lyons to spread his legs and put his hands on top of his head. After Lyons was frisked, he put his hands down, causing one cop to grab Lyons’s hands and slam them against his head. Lyons had been holding his keys and he complained that he was in pain. The police officer tackled Lyons and placed him in a chokehold until he blacked out. When Lyons regained consciousness, he was lying facedown on the ground, had soiled his pants, and was spitting up blood and dirt. The cops gave him a traffic citation and sent him on his way.” This is only one of the many examples of similar cases of unfair treatment of black people by the police that happened in the US over time.

The history of prejudice in the criminal justice system leads back to even before the bill of rights. Even though the bill of rights guaranteed worship, freedom of speech, and assembly, it did not end prejudice. When Jim Crow laws were established, there was even more prejudice. The laws were meant to “return Southern states to an antebellum class structure by marginalizing black Americans”. Black communities and individuals that attempted to go against the laws often faced violence and even death. After, the post-World War II era saw an increase in civil rights activities in the black community, with a focus on ensuring that black citizens were able to vote. This became a decades-long effort in the civil rights movement, resulting in the removal of Jim Crow laws. Then, in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “educational segregation was unconstitutional”. Even though Jim Crow laws technically did not exist anymore, it has not always automatically guaranteed full integration to anti-racism laws throughout the United States.

Racial disparity still exists today in the criminal justice system. During my research, I found four major areas of analysis: Disproportionate crime rates, disparities in criminal justice processing, overlap of race and class effects, and the impact of “race neutral” policies. According to a study conducted by Alfred Blumstein, 61% of disproportionate crime rates could be explained by criminal behavior. So 40% can not be explained by patterns. Disparities in processing have been seen mostly in the area of law enforcement, with documentation of racial profiling in recent years. National surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice found that while African Americans may be subject to traffic stops by police at similar rates to whites, they are 3 times as likely to be searched after being stopped. Disparities in the criminal justice system are in part a function of the interrelationship between race and class and reflect the disadvantages faced by low-income defendants. This can be seen mostly in the quality of defense counsel. While many public defenders provide high-quality legal support, in many jurisdictions the defense bar is characterized by high caseloads, poor training, and lacking resources. Sentencing and related criminal justice policies that are apparently “race neutral” have been seen over many years to have clear racial effects that could have been predicted by legislators prior to enactment. Research on the development of harsh sentencing policies exposes the relationship between sanctions and public perceptions of race. Criminologist Ted Chiricos found that among whites, support for harsh sentencing policies was correlated with the degree to which a particular crime was perceived to be a “black” crime. The impact of such dramatic rates of imprisonment has consequences for children growing up in these neighborhoods, mounting budgetary burdens, and reductions in public support for vital services. These developments also contribute to crumble trust in the justice system in communities of color.

There are many direct examples of racism in the criminal justice system, including arrests for drugs, police use of force during an arrest, police searches and juvenile arrests. There are more examples, but during my research, these were almost always a part of the list. For example in one study, conducted by the Cincinnati Police Division between in 1997, where about 65% of the population was white and 35% black, researchers studied 614 police-suspect encounters during which 104 people were arrested. They found that about 18% of the white officer–suspect encounters ended in arrest compared to 15% of the black officer–suspect interactions. This shows that police officers were significantly more likely to arrest black suspects than white suspects. The same researcher who conducted this study also found that the police overall has shot more black people than white people when they were fleeing. This of course always depends on the individual circumstances, but generally it points out that race may play a role. Another study conducted in Seattle reveals that race and drug-delivery arrests, including cocaine and heroin, are delivered by whites, and that blacks are the majority delivering only crack cocaine. This was found by Beckett, Nyrop and Pfingst in 2006. However, 64% of those arrested for delivering drugs other than crack cocaine are black. This suggested that the law enforcement focuses on crack cocaine and also that the white drug markets in Seattle receive less attention from law enforcement than the more diverse markets. Because of this, the researchers conclude that “Race shapes perceptions of who and what constitute Seattle’s drug problem”. Both studies and their conclusions show how the criminal justice system is prejudicial.

The level of absolute oppression in the bottom class is still enormous, for both black and white men. But I believe that it is not impossible to fix it. This issue could be resolved through for example reforming economic policies. If we wanted to reduce police oppression to the greatest extent possible with economic policy, the best solution would be to attack the existence of the bottom class altogether, wrenching down economic inequality by boosting up all of the poorest Americans regardless of race. A full employment policy would provide jobs to all who could work, a complete welfare state would provide enough income so no person was ever poor or uninsured, universal free college would make it easier for low-class people to attend. These are just some examples of what changing economic policies would do. I also believe that it would be extremely beneficial to educate police officers more. For example requiring every police officer to go to college and get an education alone would result in better people knowledge and hopefully reduce racism. There should also be a better training for police officers available, informing and teaching them about the history of people, and people in general. This would ensure more empathy towards everyone. Certain tests testing the tolerance of the officers could also be a solution towards a non racist criminal justice system. If we could test every officer and rule out whoever has racist opinions, there would only be a team of good people left. Another solution is to provide psychologists that could help officers who do have racial thoughts or wrong opinions about certain groups of people, but still want to become police officers. This ensures that everyone has a chance to become a police officer that really wants to pursue this career, even though they might not fit the job at first. It could help them improve their life and become a better person, while fulfilling their career dream to help and protect people.

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