Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Justice System

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 13
Words: 3430
Reading time:
13 min
Study level: Bachelor


The paper considers the acute issue of racial inequality and prejudice in the field of criminal justice, in particular, juvenile justice. The author provides a brief historical analysis of racial discrimination history in the USA and investigates recent cases and events of racial prejudice in the criminal justice system, leading to significant exceeding of the judgment of conviction for Blacks in comparison with Whites, including a sentence of death. It is shown that deep changes should be made to the principles of decision-making and ethical principles applied in the U.S. criminal justice system. Some practical measures are offered to improve the situation in the field, including at the level of social work.


With the recent advancements in social freedom and civil rights for minorities, many people believe that racial discrimination has been eliminated from all aspects of society. However, while there are few or no overt expressions of racism, it is still implicitly present in various social environments. The criminal justice system is one example, and many people allege that it punishes minorities unjustly. This tendency manifests in several ways, Sandra Bland and Michael Brown being prominent recent examples. In both cases, the policemen who were ultimately responsible for their deaths either were exonerated or suffered relatively light punishment. The problem is particularly urgent because mass incarceration affects young minority members, ruining their lives in the long term. Though the U.S has come far in terms of equal rights (in comparison to where it was in the 60s), it is indisputable that the nation has a massively prejudiced racist system that continues to unfairly severely punish people of color, leaving them not only marginalized but also helpless.

Racial Discrimination History in the U.S.

The United States has a long history of racism, beginning with the slavery practices that persisted until the Civil War. Even after the practice was abandoned, a significant disparity existed between white people, who were more educated and owned most of the property, and minorities, which had few resources. White people occupied most of the offices and were more likely to listen to their group than to those outside it. The case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which reaffirmed that racial segregation policies were lawful and did not infringe on anyone’s rights, was a prominent example of this effect. Overall, the history of overt discrimination based on race continued into the 1960s, when the civil rights movement emerged. Afterward, it would change but not disappear, as racism became less socially acceptable and receded into less noticeable forms.

The civil rights movement had to contend with significant opposition from the state, with many riots starting from cases of police discrimination. Some of the police’s responses may have been partially justified, as many of the protests turned violent and led to significant harm. With that said, the movement ultimately prevailed, and racial discrimination and police brutality against minorities became unlawful. However, the same people remained in positions of power, and their biases likely remained the same as before. There would still be issues related to discrimination, though these people would attempt to rationalize them with different explanations. As a result, it would be challenging to determine what caused the mistreatment, as the case of Michael Brown highlights. However, another prominent problem also emerged as a result of independent political and economic developments.

In the 1970s, the United States began putting increasing numbers of people in prisons as a result of stricter anti-crime policies. Using the pretext of enforcing the law and preventing violations, the politicians and prosecutors of the nation secured widespread support from the population of all races and groups. Hutchinson (2018) claims that there was an anti-black stigma at the time, caused by the perception of some community members as dangerous criminals who harm the image of the minority as a whole. As a result, the policy enabled exploitation that led to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans without inciting the overt disapproval of the community. People knew about the disparity, but attributed it to social rather than racial factors and ignored the inequality. Moreover, there may have been some groups that promoted implicit racial discrimination in the policy for political and economic reasons.

There were racial differences in the types of crime committed in the United States, ones that lawmakers and companies could exploit to affect minorities disproportionately. Fosten (2016) describes a 100:1 sentencing disparity for the possession of crack cocaine against the powder form, noting that white people consumed the latter and used more cocaine than African Americans, who favored the former. In general, minorities were prosecuted more harshly for drug-related crimes than white people. In combination with the rise of private prisons and their demand for prisoners, as described by Fosten (2016), these factors have led to oppression against non-white people. These changes occurred under the banner of reducing the incidences of issues such as drug usage and crimes, factors that affected many minorities strongly due to their socioeconomic status.

The overall results of the policies serve as evidence that they were not intended to achieve their stated purpose. Kamalu and Onyeozili (2018) discuss the ‘broken windows’ policy of New York City in the 1990s, claiming that it resulted in disproportionate arrests of African Americans and Hispanics and did not reduce crime. Instead, economic and social factors led to the shrinking of the crime-prone population and the consequent reduction in crime. Instead, the policy made minorities trust the city police less, as their members believed that they were being targeted. The result is a part of a broader trend that contributes to the creation of a divide between the criminal justice system and minorities. While they may have supported harsh sentencing laws on the national level, they disapproved of the police and saw it as unfair locally.

Overall, the perception has emerged among minorities that law enforcement agencies were racist and would target their members disproportionately and with excessive violence. As Trahan and Russell (2017) describe, African Americans have been significantly less likely to accept police use of force, both generally, and specifically, in all cases except murder, since 1972 and until 2012 or later. As the application of force to apprehend criminals is among the essential purposes of the police, this data highlights a climate of opposition between minorities and law enforcement. The latter should serve the former alongside all other population categories, but to be able to do so competently, it has to obtain every citizen’s trust again. However, as long as the current system continues its promotion of racial discrimination, the climate cannot change to a significant degree.

Currently, there is considerable discussion about unfairness in the criminal justice system. According to Rosich et al. (2007), African Americans were arrested for 37% of violent crimes and 29% of property crimes despite only representing 12.3% of the population in 2003. Moreover, black people are six times as likely to be murdered as whites, and the rate of African Americans of both genders in the criminal justice system is growing faster than any other group (Rosich et al., 2007). Similar disproportionately high rates of criminal involvement are also present for other minorities such as Native Americans. Some people claim that minorities’ higher propensity toward crime causes this disparity, but dissenting opinions claim minorities are punished disproportionately to create that appearance and reinforce racist stereotypes.

The Juvenile Justice System and Victimization

The juvenile justice system is particularly problematic, as early involvement with it can harm a person’s prospects significantly. According to Turney and Wakefield (2019), arrests, convictions, and incarcerations can create an inequality that lasts throughout one’s life. As such, young individuals who go through the system can lose many valuable opportunities. Minority members, in particular, can have issues readjusting to society due to a variety of factors such as financial status and social support. As such, if the phenomenon persists at a high level and targets non-whites disproportionately, it can contribute to inequality significantly in the long term. People who have nowhere to go will possibly turn to crime and eventually create a local culture that revolves around it. This chapter relates the findings on the matter based on various recent literature.

Overall, minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system at all levels, including juveniles. In the study by Ho and Intravia (2019), 37.5% of the underage convicts throughout a period were African American, though the race did not have a significant impact on recidivism. Young minority members are more likely to receive a criminal record for their actions than whites, who are often forgiven and let off with a warning. As a result, the rate at which African Americans are convicted relative to their population share is much higher than that for whites, with other minorities also being affected. In combination with the racist views some policemen may have about minorities, as indicated by the case of Michael Brown, this factor makes the criminal justice system an actual danger for them.

In addition to the danger of imprisonment or death, juveniles are also affected by issues regarding employment and further life prospects. Lockwood, Nally, and Ho (2015) claim that ex-offenders would more likely turn to crime if they could not find a job after release, regardless of their race or education level. This issue affects every ex-convict similarly, but when combined with other factors, it is exacerbated for minorities. According to Lockwood, Nally, and Ho (2015), past studies show that African American offenders have a high recidivism rate because they return to poor criminal neighborhoods with few job prospects. As a result of a lack of social support and the criminal activity of their peers, they struggle to reintegrate into society and become victimized with few hopes of returning to society.

The factors that affect recidivism are not necessarily racially based, but rather a product of the neighborhoods where many minority members reside. Brisky, Takahashi, and Hernandez (2016) highlight gang membership, drug usage, and nontraditional family arrangements such as single-parent households as significant crime predictors. People from any race or ethnicity are susceptible to these factors, which is the reason why the repeat offense rates among members of the various groups are closer to each other than first-offense convictions. Regardless, while there may not be a racial bias in action, recidivism among juveniles is a significant issue that affects everyone. Its elimination would help minorities improve their prospects and eventually stabilize at a level where their members are no longer threatened by poverty and crime. Then, non-white people would be proportionally represented in every aspect of the nation and make sure that discriminatory policies and practices were addressed.

Welfare systems for juveniles and single-parent families are among the methods the United States currently uses to address unemployment issues. Their purpose is to provide the people in question with some stability while they look for a job. However, the programs frequently backfire, making people dependent on the payouts and unwilling to go through the effort of seeking a job. According to Kolivoski, Goodkind, and Shook (2017), the child welfare and juvenile justice systems are tools of social control despite their benevolent origins due to their focus on the individual over the broader context. It should be noted that the issue of young people who are within both of the systems, known as crossover youth, is beyond the exclusive purview of law enforcement. Social workers have to find ways to help them overcome their numerous issues and reintegrate into society.

Recent Events and Responses

There have been several high-profile cases recently that highlight the issues of the criminal justice system. As Williams (2019) describes, Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Wilson during an argument despite being unarmed. The incident sparked outrage and protests within Ferguson and nationwide, and the policeman resigned as a result. However, the grand jury decided that Wilson’s use of lethal force was justified given the circumstances, and he was ultimately not charged with any crimes. Williams (2019) highlights the history of discrimination in the city that emerged as a result of the controversy and the positive changes that resulted but notes that the issues remain unresolved. There are likely similar cases of deep-seated bigotry in many other American towns and cities that nobody recognizes or acknowledges until some incident occurs that brings them to light.

The story of Sandra Bland is an example of a situation where the matter is more ambiguous but suggests significant issues. As Laughland (2019) notes, she was found hanged in her jail cell three days after her arrest by state trooper Brian Encinia for a traffic violation. The death has ultimately ruled a suicide, but the reasons why Bland would commit such an act are unclear, and many people retain suspicions. Encinia was fired but not indicted due to a plea deal, and the Bland family settled a lawsuit against the police for $1.9 million (Laughland, 2019). Moreover, Laughland (2019) claims that a video recording of the arrest from Bland’s perspective surfaced in 2019 after being withheld by the authorities for five years. The officer threatened the woman with a taser despite her not representing a threat, providing indirect evidence to the supporters of the police brutality theory.

However, acts of dishonesty and dangerous practices occur among minorities as well as the authorities, further complicating the situation. Madhani (2019) discusses the recent story of Jussie Smollett, who reported a racist, homophobic crime against himself to the police but was contradicted by an overwhelming amount of evidence. The case is still ongoing, but the consensus among the authorities and the population is that the actor committed a hoax for publicity and a salary increase. Madhani (2019) describes sentiments to the effect of the case distracting attention from numerous murders and shootings that occurred in Chicago while the case was being investigated. Overall, cases like that of Mr. Smollett discredit legitimate accounts of racism because it creates the suspicion that they may be exaggerated or untruthful, complicating efforts to improve the situation.

Overall, attempts to address the situation can be categorized into two different varieties: institutional and social. The former will attempt to resolve the various biases and racially discriminatory issues in the criminal justice system. To do so, activists and politicians have to identify laws that create unequal outcomes and change them so that they address the original issues without disadvantaging any section of the community excessively. Moreover, situations such as those described above, where there are problematic practices that do not usually surface until there is a controversy, have to be addressed before an unfortunate incident happens. To do so, people have to call out potential issues and conduct analyses to see whether there are problems. Moreover, they have to apply pressure to law enforcement agencies so that positive change happens while balancing the efforts to prevent abuse.

Concerning social improvement, workers should apply their efforts to improve the condition of minority communities as a whole. They should reduce people’s and families’ reliance on welfare and help young people find jobs. A reform to the welfare system would reorient it to address community issues instead of supporting individuals with no long-term effects. In general, minority youth should receive help and be encouraged to avoid committing crimes because of the potential dangers to their future that could come from an arrest and conviction. Education to that end would be beneficial, as would some addressing of various issues with the American education system that harm minority prospects. People without a criminal record can integrate into society and achieve upward mobility, eventually equalizing the various ethnic and racial groups in the nation.

Additionally, social workers and authorities should try to address the general conditions that lead a significant portion of the juvenile convict population to recede. Poverty is a significant issue that keeps various populations down and leads to the emergence of other issues such as gang violence and drug usage. As a result, crime is rampant in poor communities, making law enforcement more likely to observe and raid such neighborhoods. If at least some of these problems can be alleviated, the involvement of disadvantaged populations in the criminal justice system can be reduced. Employment opportunities would be highly advantageous, as a steady job and prospects would reduce the likelihood that existing offenders will resort to crime again. Consultations with the national police, representatives of the judiciary and the legislature, NGOs, and representatives of African-American and Latino communities would seem appropriate to assess the discrepancies between existing national practice and national-international police and judicial standards. In general, “systematic analysis” is a study that allows identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the organization’s current activities in comparison with several norms, measured based on actual results, so that appropriate measures can subsequently be taken to achieve these standards (Simonis, 2017). This analysis should be carried out within the framework of a clear system of norms and appropriate organizational procedures to solve the task.

However, measures are taken only at the level of social work are not sufficient. Deep reforms in so-called “racial profiling” should be implemented. Consultations with the national police, representatives of the judiciary and the legislature, NGOs, and representatives of African-American and Latino communities would seem appropriate to assess the discrepancies between existing national practice and national-international police and judicial standards. In general, “systematic analysis” is a study that allows identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the justice organization’s current activities in comparison with several norms, measured based on actual results. Thus, the appropriate measures can subsequently be taken to achieve these standards (Simonis, 2017). This analysis should be carried out within the framework of a clear system of norms and appropriate organizational procedures to solve the task set.

The result should be the development of a strategic plan of action to eliminate the identified discrepancies and the formation of institutional mechanisms to ensure compliance with these standards in the future. In particular, racial profiling should be abandoned as a practice that a priori degrades human dignity and promotes incitement to racial hostility. In addition, it should be taken into account that the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary are of great importance for the courts to fulfill their role in maintaining constitutionalism and the rule of law (Schudson, 2018). Thus, a more stringent selection of candidates for the positions of judges at all levels should be carried out, and reduce the period between scheduled ‘performance appraisal’ should be reduced.

Particular attention should be paid to the analysis of the psychological characteristics of judges about their racial beliefs, which can be done using specially designed tests and cases. In law enforcement bodies (police), in-depth training is needed on issues of racial equality and ethical standards for the representative of the rule of law agencies, and monitoring its results, preferably according to the Kolb method. The Kolb method is today the universally recognized most effective method of adult education, contributing to a deep understanding and assimilation of educational material (Kolb, 2014). In particular, the method involves self-reflection based on personal experience, which ensures the consolidation of knowledge in subsequent practical activities.

If the above-mentioned measures are not taken, and the situation remains the same as it is now, it will cause even more social tension in the society as one can observe now. New Ferguson pogroms, new school, and church shootings – this is quite not the full list of possible consequences of failure of authority to act to change the situation. Moreover, further problems in the check and balances system between the federal and states judiciary system can arise, as well as aggravation of separatist tendencies in some historically ‘explosion-prone’ states.


There is significant racial discrimination in the U.S. criminal justice system despite the various laws that address the issue and attempt to eliminate it. The concept pervades the nation’s history too deeply for superficial measures to suffice for resolving it. The involvement of specific minorities in the system is disproportionately high for all population categories and has been so for a long time. Juveniles, in particular, are victimized by convictions that harm their ability to obtain a job later on and have to return to crime to survive. As such, non-white communities are estranged from the police, and the relationship between the two entities frequently becomes hostile. Recent events and the responses to them show that there are earnest attempts to address the problem, but the efforts are mostly unsuccessful due to bad-faith actors on both sides. Urgent and comprehensive action is necessary on both the institutional and the social fronts to address the concern and achieve a fair justice system.


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