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Cultural Diversity Issues in the Criminal Justice System

Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

The criminal justice system depends on fairness to have the faith of the American people. In a diverse nation like the United States, however, cultural diversity can often work against the idea of a fair and unbiased justice system.

Criminal Justice

Most people hate jury duty, but it's one of the most common ways for ordinary citizens to interact with the criminal justice system. This system consists of parts which include the police, the courts, and prisons. The main goals of the criminal justice system in this country are to keep the nation's citizens safe, offer them their say in court, and to house convicted felons separate from ordinary people. The three parts of the justice system address these tasks in different ways. Like any system with different parts operated by different people, there are occasional problems because humans vary on how they process and act on information. In this lesson we will discuss the problems brought on by cultural diversity as it relates to the criminal justice system.

What is Cultural Diversity?

Diversity takes many forms, but this lesson will focus on cultural diversity. People from many different cultures with different values, faiths, and sets of beliefs call the US home. Diversity can be an asset in many ways. Diverse perspectives allow for a variety of approaches to problem solving, testing and developing new ideas, and cultural expressions such as art and music. One of the reasons why the US has a well-developed policy of freedom of speech is to promote communication among a variety of people with different experiences.

The information contained in this lesson applies primarily to the American justice system. The ideas and issues we will discuss may apply to other countries' courts, police, etc; but this lesson is intended to be a discussion of the American system. The United States isn't completely unique in its diversity. Other countries have diverse populations as well, but the US has embraced diversity as a source of pride and strength. For instance, a well-known analogy represents America as a melting pot, as diverse groups contribute to the greatness of the nation.

Diversity as a Problem

We should discuss two terms before diving into our examples, bias and stereotype. Bias occurs when a person has preconceived opinions that prevent or hamper the ability to remain impartial. Bias isn't always bad if it's based on specific situations and not applied to broad groups of people. For example, you can be biased against a cousin who always borrows money and never pays you back. Commonly-held biases can create stereotypes. These are exaggerated or oversimplified notions applied to certain groups of people. When a person expects a person of a particular race to be dishonest, for instance, issues of fairness can arise.

Lady Justice is often shown wearing a blindfold. This powerful image demonstrates the need for impartiality in the justice system.
Lady Justice, wearing a blindfold and bearing scales.

Behaviors such as bias and stereotyping are part of the system of cognition, where the brain makes decisions. In ambiguous situations people use their biases to help them make decisions. Problems can arise when unfair bias prevents a person from looking fairly at the evidence before making a decision. Since impartiality and fairness are the ideals of the justice system, this can cause the system to break down.

Police and Profiling

This concept is most clearly seen in the practice of racial profiling, which is a way of using stereotypes to influence judgment rather than facts. This practice still occurs in law enforcement, and involves assumptions about the character of individuals based on their culture or skin color. People of color and members of other cultures are the target of profiling because people are influenced based on their own past experiences or the experiences of others.

If a person of color is driving an expensive car, for instance, an unfairly biased police officer may conclude that the person is a drug dealer, rather than a doctor or lawyer. This police officer is making his decision based on stereotypes about how people of color earn their money. This behavior can become a problem when the police officer spends time asking questions or arresting an otherwise innocent person. This situation can become deadly if the police officer assumes that any actions taken by this individual will be violent.

Judicial Bias

Unfair bias can also occur during the court process, which involves judges and juries. Remember that judges and juries are supposed to be impartial, and bias can ruin impartiality. The reason this is an issue with judges is because they have the highest discretion in legal matters. Discretion refers to the ability to make decisions based on criteria that are not concrete. Judges need to use discretion in order to do their job, because the law cannot foresee every possibility.

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