Racial Discrimination in the US Criminal Justice System

Instructor: David White
Racial discrimination is a complicated subject when it comes to criminal justice. Through this lesson, you will explore the various ways in which race influences the decisions and judgements made in the American criminal justice system.

Understanding the Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system is a big category that includes, among other things, various law enforcement agencies, court systems, and prisons. In general, a person enters the criminal justice system when they are arrested and from that point they may or may not move through the various stages like appearing in court, being sentenced for the crime, and serving their sentence in a jail or prison.

It's important to remember that just because a person enters the criminal justice system, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're guilty of anything or they'll be sentenced. People are often detained or arrested for crimes that they didn't commit. In most cases, these people are let go as soon as the error is discovered, but other times they may be imprisoned for years before the mistake is proven in court. These errors are the result of a fallible human system; yet there are other errors and unfair practices in the justice system that has more to do with race and stereotypes than any human mistake.

Race and Perceptions of Danger

The racial discrimination that people of color have historically faced in American society is the result of centuries old beliefs and misperceptions held by white people. Among those are certain stereotypes, or very simple and usually inaccurate ideas about a person or group, implying that people of color, particularly African-American men pose a threat to white society. This is not to suggest that stereotypes only affect African-Americans; however, when it comes to the criminal justice system, stereotypes about this group have had a disproportionately negative effect.

For centuries, African-Americans were stereotyped as lazy and dangerous to white society.

Although stereotypes are much less prominent or acceptable in present-day America, these very old beliefs continue to affect American culture. For example, over the last several decades, multiple studies have found that white people perceive African-Americans as being more dangerous, regardless of whether or not they are engaged in violent or threatening behavior. Additionally, they are also frequently associated with guns or violence, unconsciously influencing the opinions and judgements that others form about them.

Racial Biases

The old stereotypes and lingering fears that cause white Americans to discriminate against people of color may not always be conscious, but they lead to considerable bias when it comes judging those who have been accused of criminal behavior. In simple terms, a bias is when a person is prejudiced against one person or group over another.

Imagine that a white juror is tasked with judging the guilt of a black man and a white man accused of the same crime. What might happen is that the juror identifies more the white person, finding them more believable and thus less likely to have committed the crime. Conversely, influenced by the factors explored in the previous section, they may perceive the black man to be more likely to have engaged in criminal activity, for no other reason than he is of a different race.

This type of bias has come under scrutiny in recent years, particularly in the deaths of young black men like Treyvon Martin. In 2012, Florida teenager Treyvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch member while walking home from a convenience store. The case was complicated and divisive, but what few people could deny is that the man who shot Martin did so because he perceived the young black man (in a mostly white neighborhood) as being a threat to his life or the lives of others, despite the fact that Martin was simply walking down the street.

Perception of Criminality

Due to stereotypes and biases, people of color are disproportionately perceived as being more likely to commit crimes than white people, and this is true of children and adults. For example, recent studies have found that young African-American boys and men are often perceived as being older or less innocent than young whites, and therefore more likely to engage in criminal behavior.

If you're wondering what age has to do with perception of guilt, consider this: if a 12 year old has been accused of murder, you'd probably be more sympathetic and avoid harsh judgements because they are just a child and aren't entirely responsible for their actions. But what if it was a 17 year old that was accused of murder? You'd likely have an easier time believing that they are capable of a violent act and would want them held accountable for their crime. Given that, when a child of color is perceived as being 17 or 18, instead of 12 or 13, they are more likely to be judged harshly and more heavily penalized than a white child of the same age.

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