Definition of Economic, Racial & Gender Disparity

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  • 0:02 Defining Disparity
  • 0:25 Economic Disparity
  • 1:35 Racial Disparity
  • 2:09 Reducing Racial Disparity
  • 3:02 Gender Disparity
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Melanie Norwood

Melanie has taught several criminal justice courses, holds an MS in Sociology concentrating in Criminal Justice & is completing her Ph.D. in Criminology, Law & Justice.

In this lesson, we'll discuss what economic, racial, and gender disparities are and how they impact those who interact with the criminal justice system in the United States.

Defining Disparity

In today's political climate, chances are good that you've heard the term 'disparity.' Generally, it means that there is some sort of inequitable difference between two comparable groups. In criminal justice, 'disparity' refers to how the criminal justice system treats certain groups in relation to other groups. These groups are often separated along economic, race, or gender lines.

Economic Disparity

In the American criminal justice system, as in many elements of American society, money goes a long way. For those who have economic means, like money, and can afford the skills of a savvy attorney, there are many benefits. These individuals can afford to post bail and not remain in jail post-arrest. With the help of the attorney they've hired, they can also negotiate a plea to avoid prison time, or serve as little time as possible under the best possible conditions the system can offer (such as prisons closer to home or lower security prisons).

By contrast, people who lack money typically cannot make bail, so they'll remain in jail until their cases can be heard. Additionally, they must rely on the services of public defenders who are often overwhelmed with cases and ill-prepared for court, as opposed to better-prepared private attorneys the defendants cannot afford. Public defenders often lack an established relationship with many of the judges they work with; as a result, they're unable to negotiate better pleas for their clients that may be amenable to judges. On occasion, a private attorney may offer his or her services pro bono (or free of charge) to a defendant whose case they find particularly unjust.

Racial Disparity

Among those who study the criminal justice system, it's no secret that minorities in the United States - specifically African Americans - are arrested for crimes at a far greater rate than their caucasian counterparts. Minorities comprise a smaller proportion of the nation's overall population than other groups - specifically in comparison to caucasians. Racial disparities are known statistical differences that occur along racial lines. For example, minorities are less likely to be released from jail on bond, more likely to serve prison time, and serve longer sentences when sentenced to prison.

Reducing Racial Disparity

Many efforts have been made to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Some attorneys, law clerks, and paralegals target their services towards minority clients in the hope of better balancing the scales of justice. A major advancement in reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system occurred in 2010. President Obama reduced the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine from 100:1 to 20:1, a shift that predominantly affected African American offenders serving prison time. Originally, an individual charged with possession of crack cocaine served a sentence that was 100 times longer than the sentence for someone convicted of possessing powdered cocaine. As a result of the president's action, offenders who had been incarcerated for many years as a result of this sentencing structure had their sentences reduced or were released back into the community.

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