Racial Inequality: African-American Males Experience

The Issue

In the recent years since the murder of Michael Brown, most US citizens have turned their attention on the cruel treatment of African American at every phase of the criminal justice system, especially the police. An outrageous percentage has been murdered in interactions with police in the last few years, leading to mass protests across the US. Many more have experienced understated forms of discrimination in the American criminal justice system in which current social research evidence shows outstanding racial disparities across almost all levels, including rates of arrests, durations of sentences, bail amounts, and probation hearing outcomes among others. For instance, African Americans and Latino Americans are incarcerated more than five times the rate of whites in State prisons across the United States (Crutchfield, Fernandes, & Martinez, 2010; Walker, Spohn, & DeLone, 2012).

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This variation reflects an aspect of racial disparity. In a criminal justice system, racial disparity reflects dissimilar treatment for individuals in the same situations based on race or ethnicity. Factors responsible for racial disparity are numerous and may include different rates of criminal activities, law enforcement agency’s specific focus on certain communities, legislative policies, inequitable access to resources, overt racial bias, and/or rulings made by the criminal justice members who exercise wide discretion in justice processes across different stages within the system. The above-mentioned observations attempt to offer a rationale of factors that have contributed, over the years, to the existence of racial disparity in the United States criminal justice system (Schlesinger, 2005; Tonry, 2010).

Irrespective of what one considers as the causes of racial disparity in the criminal justice system, it should be deeply distributing to all citizens that these figures rarely decline as the problem is projected to affect the future generation if no effective solutions are sought and implemented. A large body of literature evaluated demonstrates the strongest pointers of racial disparity across various stages of the criminal justice system, and it is readily acknowledged that racial disparity is suggestive of challenges in the US society, but it is maintained that limited efforts or actions are taken to address such problems. Moreover, few research studies seek to find practical solutions to the ethnic or racial disparity problem in the pretrial criminal processing by obtaining views from various stakeholders in the criminal justice system including victims of the system. Therefore, the aim of this research paper was to find practical solutions to reduce racial disparity challenges in the pretrial criminal processing through interviews with practitioners.

Literature Review

A significant progress has been made as far as equal treatment of people in America is concerned (Chin, 2002; Quigley, 2011). As such, specific laws affecting all American citizens have been included in the statute, such as the right of freedom against discrimination in public and housing accommodations, as well as in employment. Following such concerns, there has been an increase in the number of minority groups in employment positions both in the private and in public sectors (Garland, Spohn, & Wodahl, 2008). Nowadays, most minority groups in American can access educational and economic opportunities in comparison to previous years (Weich & Angulo, 2002). In spite of the significant progress toward equality in America, the process toward the achievement of such goal is slow. On the other hand, America is experiencing increased cases of racial inequality in the criminal justice arena. Despite the neutrality of American criminal laws, their enforcement is biased pervasively and massively (Wakefield & Uggen, 2010).

Mustard (2001) examines the gender, ethnic, and racial differences in sentencing within the American criminal justice system. Based on analysis, factors such as citizenship, income, education, gender and race influence the length of an individual’s sentence in America (Mustard, 2001). In spite of this, Mustard (2001) points out that there are guidelines, which state that such factors ought to have no effect on American length of sentence. As such, it is evident that much of the disparity in sentencing is attributed to the departure from the rules as opposed to aspects of differential sentencing based on set guidelines.

For this reason, Mustard (2001) calls for the adoption of the necessary social policies to ensure that the set laws on sentencing in America are followed. Chin (2002) focuses on the various impacts that result from racial discrimination, and notes that such discrimination in the American criminal justice system is a serious problem that requires to be addressed adequately. While it is true that there are sets of laws for each criminal offense in America, sentences awarded to various individuals differ based on a number of factors, such as race. African-Americans tend to suffer more from racial discrimination, especially in cases involving drug offenses. According to Chin (2002), laws on the length of sentence for offenses involving drugs were enacted based on elements of racial discrimination. For this reason, there is a need for policies that enhance equality of all individuals regardless of their race.

Weich and Angulo (2002) provide a review of the state of the criminal justice system in America with a lot of emphasis on aspects of racial disparities. They point out that despite the progress that America has made in terms of equality, the criminal justice system lags behind as far as equality in this sector is concerned (Weich & Angulo, 2002). Such injustices cause adverse effects on the relevance of civil rights activism in the country. From this viewpoint, the criminal justice system in America disproportionately targets the Hispanics and Blacks, as well as other minority groups. As such, Weich and Angulo (2002) advocate for improved training of police officers to ensure that they comply with the required national standards, particularly when dealing with criminal cases and marginalized persons. For this reason, there is a need for social policies to champion for the availability of resources and expanded authority to enhance oversight in the criminal justice system of America.

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Pettit and Western (2004) raise concerns over the increasing rate of imprisonment based on social class and race in America. According to Pettit and Western (2004), such scenario comes when social systems have been improved to promote equality in all aspects in the country. For example, the private and public sectors are now employing people of all race and color. In spite of this, there is a need for a social policy to eliminate racial discrimination in America (Pettit & Western, 2004). Such a policy should focus on ensuring that there is no element of pervasive and massive bias in American laws.

Garland et al. (2008) address the problem of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system of America and stress that the Hispanic and black males suffer from disproportionate risk of being imprisoned. Such a problem negatively affects the contemporary criminal justice policies and makes it hard to integrate minority groups in American larger political, economic, and social landscape. With respect to this observation, it is important to note that generalizing the explanation of racial disparity in American prisons is not possible. However, Garland et al. (2008) point out that discrimination in the American criminal justice system is characterized by the unequal treatment in terms of unfair practices and policies. Based on this assertion, they recommend the availability of policies that can be applied in monitoring the discrimination potential, as well as establishing the sources of such discrimination (Garland et al., 2008). In addition, such an approach can help to redeem the efficiency and credibility of the American justice system, as well as prevent the consequences of discriminating and incarcerating the minority group.

Tonry (2010) highlights various factors that influence racial discrimination in the American criminal justice system. According to Tonry (2010), it is evident that black Americans are more likely to be imprisoned than whites are. In most cases, the imprisonment of more blacks than whites in America is instigated by the unprecedented severe sentences that are guided by distinctive political, psychological, and sociological features (Tonry, 2010). The author proposes better approaches to deal with the racism experienced in the criminal justice system of America. Such approaches, according to Tonry (2010), could include significant changes in the drug policy, and radical decarceration, as well as the establishment of better mechanisms to reduce sentences of historically unprecedented length.

Wakefield and Uggen (2010) examine the scope of imprisonment in America, as well as the procedures followed before an individual is imprisoned. An increase in the rate at which incarceration is being used in America to reproduce and reinforce social inequalities is now evident (Wakefield & Uggen, 2010). In this regard, punishment plays a significant role in creating racial inequalities in the American criminal justice system. As such, Wakefield and Uggen (2010) call for a review of the role of imprisonment and selection into prisons, as well as changes in existing laws as a way to enhance equality for all Americans.

Quigley (2011) considers racism in the American criminal justice system to be the biggest crime in the country. Racism is exercised openly with the target being African-Americans. Discrimination is practiced in various aspects shown through parole and freedom, prisons, sentencing, trials, jury selection, legal representation, arrests, and police stops, as well as drug arrests (Quigley, 2011). The discrimination of blacks has adverse effects on the society because it creates multiple barriers between the whites and the blacks. Quigley (2011) advocates for social policies that address the problem of racial discrimination in America. Such polices should consider revolutionary values by examining the root causes of discrimination as opposed to making reforms in the criminal justice system.

Racial profiling is a significant problem that is contrary to the provisions of the American constitution. According to the American laws, all people ought to receive equal treatment regardless of their ethnicity or race (Mosher & Pickerill, 2012). In addition, the constitution requires that all Americans, whether black of white, should enjoy freedom from seizures and unreasonable searches. Nevertheless, they assert that racial discrimination has become common in US, and it is attributed to individual officers’ acts of racism or even stereotypes. For this reason, Mosher and Pickerill (2012) call for a change in policing approaches and practices in the US.

Cases of racial, ethnic discrimination are common in America despite the call for equality in all aspects. Walker et al. (2012) point out that such discrimination on basis of race and ethnicity ought to be addressed by adopting significant policies. According to the authors, there is a need for a review of the American criminal justice system for ensuring equal sentences for all people regardless of their race of ethnic backgrounds.

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Based on the literature above, it is evident that there is a need for effective practices and social policies in America to redeem the country’s criminal justice system. This conclusion is noted because despite significant progress in aspects of equality, the majority of African-Americans, especially males, are disproportionately sentenced. As such, the establishment of such policies will ensure that all people in America are tried and sentenced according to the provisions of the law and the constitution. However, achieving a better criminal justice system is the responsibility of everyone. For example, researchers can help in the policymaking, implementation, and evaluation of the process of social change and the adoption of sound practices aimed at eliminating racial prejudice against the blacks and Hispanics.

Methods

Unwarranted ethnic or racial disparity exists in a county or a state’s criminal justice processing of defendants. As such, it can occur at any point within the criminal justice process. In this case, data were collected from relevant stakeholders within the criminal justice processing system.

Participants

Research participants were selected for an interview from three key stakeholders, including a parole board member, a prosecutor, and a police officer. Six sample interviewees were selected from different ethnic backgrounds, especially the ethnicities that relate directly to the research problem, including the Whites, the Black Americans, and the Latino Americans.

Procedure

The interviewees were contacted and agreed to participate in the study. A signed consent was then obtained. The interview was conducted at an ideal undisclosed location of the interviewees’ choosing.

Instrumentation

A questionnaire with ten standard questions containing both open- and close-ended questions designed to assess pretrial disparities was administered to participants. Responses were recorded, coded, and analyzed using a thematic analysis technique.

Findings

Data analyzed established that within the pretrial process, multiple stages presented opportunities for persons to be treated unusually based on race. Notably, persons who were arrested and charged with an offense could be subjected to various treatments. They could be deprived of a release on a formal bond or granted a supervised release; subjected to relatively higher amounts of bail they could not post; denied admission to some change programs; or rejected for deferred prosecution or other alternative options.

Racial disparities were most likely to take place at any of these points in the pretrial stage in the criminal justice system. It was also observed that the main contributors of ethnic or racial disparities in the pretrial criminal processing included stereotypical norms, racial profiling, and certain decisions based on race. Moreover, it was also noted that policies in the criminal justice system that target specific areas or people, such as the federal crack cocaine sentencing laws of the 1980s, harsh sentencing policies, and drug policies among others, were also responsible for racial disparities.

It remained difficult to determine the effectiveness of policies in the criminal justice system that aimed to restrain ethnic or racial disparities in the pretrial criminal processing because no data were available to tract any improvements. Nevertheless, it was shown that there were unimplemented measures, which could aid in reducing ethnic or racial disparities in the United States pretrial criminal processing. For example, best protocols for every pretrial decision based on standards provided by the Sentencing Guidelines and the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies (NAPSA) could possibly reduce racial disparities. In addition, policies on risk assessment tools and related standards operating processes should be reviewed to determine if they are unintentionally biased to some racial minorities.

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African Americans and Hispanics were more likely to be detained relative to whites while they await trials, irrespective of outcomes of controlled charges and past records. Failure to post the bail by the defendant led to temporary incarceration, which eventually affected subsequent processes negatively.

Attempts were made to address some evident racial disparities. For instance, it was noted that one could start a process with major decision-makers, such as police and pretrial officials, to address practices and guidelines that led to racial disparity in the pretrial stage. Outcomes were used to adjust some of these practices to reduce disparities. While an officer could initiate a review of guidelines, procedures, and practices, not all other stakeholders in the process were involved in the effort, making such attempts to be futile with limited impacts.

Discussion

Racial disparities in the pretrial criminal justice systems are still common, and minorities are the most affected in the US. They can be either intentional or unintentional based on guidelines, policies, procedures, and individuals involved. The pretrial stage presented several opportunities for such forms of discrimination, but there were also opportunities for improvement. These findings reflect what available literature shows about racial disparities in the US criminal justice system (Crutchfield et al., 2010; Mustard, 2001; Pettit & Western, 2004; Walker et al., 2012; Quigley, 2011; Weich & Angulo, 2002; Schlesinger, 2005).

Theories of discrimination can be applied to explain racial disparities observed in the pretrial stage of the US criminal justice system. These theories attempt to demonstrate possible explanations for such racial disparities and their potential effects. Uncertainty reduction theory asserts that individuals require information about each other to reduce uncertainty (West & Turner, 2010). However, it appears that the required information may not be forthcoming in interaction between law enforcement officers and suspects from marginalized races. Consequently, they fail to develop positive relationships, leading to discrimination and stereotyping. The theory of intentional or explicit discrimination may be shown through verbal and nonverbal attacks and denial of some opportunities, such as bail or some change programs during the pretrial process because of race (Blank, Dabady, & Citro, 2004).

Another theory that could result in confrontational discriminatory outcomes for African Americans is referred to as statistical discrimination or profiling (Blank et al., 2004, p. 61). In this situation, law enforcement officers rely on overall beliefs about African Americans to make pretrial decisions about a suspect from this disadvantaged race. For instance, the alleged notions that African Americans are drug peddlers and criminals are assumed to apply to an individual, leading to racial disparities in the delivery of justice. Unconscious, automatic discrimination theory asserts that prejudicial attitudes deeply rooted in the US history of overt prejudice could be responsible for the current pretrial decisions and racial disparities in the criminal justice system (Blank et al., 2004).

Finally, the theory of organizational processes highlights the long history of racial bias in the US. The history has served to reinforce some individual cognitive responses, leading to laws and regulations that reflect the history (Blank et al., 2004). Hence, racial disparities emanate from some institutional processes, guidelines, and procedures designed to deny justice to African Americans. It is imperative to recognize that organizational processes and rules may not be easy to reconstruct, and they could appear generally ‘normal’ on the surface. For example, institutional processes that define who is granted bail, improvement opportunities, and release among others often result in consistent racial discrimination against African Americans, and these processes are not easy to dismantle. Moreover, law enforcement agencies or officers engaged in such processes honestly deny any intent to discriminate disadvantaged racial groups.

From the study, it was established that various factors contribute to racial disparities in the pretrial stage. An agreement on the pretrial decision to release is critical for reducing cases of racial disparity. The pretrial stage provides the best opportunity for law enforcement officers to gather adequate information and eliminate uncertainty about a suspect. Consequently, they can then make fair and objective assessment of the case and the suspect’s traits and risks, which should not be based on race. Processes of bail, for instance, should be considered as due process activities and priorities in the pretrial procedures to ensure fairness.

This implies that the bail should not be too high for the defendant to post. Education is also required at the pretrial process. Such educational programs should be ongoing to address noted challenges for all suspects, including individuals who have committed heinous crimes. Moreover, such programs should provide regular data for analysis and decision-making to improve guidelines, processes, and policies. Outcomes should also be provided to the public. It is also important for pretrial departments to collaborate with other agencies and staff in the criminal justice system. Such collaborative practices should extend to community and advocacy groups involved in early release decisions.

It is also recommended that the bail should be granted based on the provisions of the National District Attorneys Association, the American Bar Association, and NAPSA. These agencies strive to disassociate the bail from related commercial influences. By eliminating commercial elements of the bail, an equitable system would be realized in pretrial procedures because financial aspects that tend restrict participations of disadvantage groups would be discarded. Pretrial agencies should consider such a policy to reduce racial disparity. Additionally, no tools designed to evaluate risks should discriminate against African Americans and other minority racial groups. Hence, such tools require reviews to determine their effectiveness on policies that reduce discrimination, such as sentencing guidelines. The pretrial agencies’ workforce should also be drawn from racial minorities to reflect the changing American society.

Further studies should focus on implementation of policies to reduce racial disparities and determine how such policies have been effective in influencing decisions of pretrial agencies and personnel.

References

Blank, R. M., Dabady, M., & Citro, C. F. (Eds.). (2004). Measuring racial discrimination. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press.

Chin, G. (2002). Race, the war on drugs, and the collateral consequences of criminal conviction. Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, 6(1), 253.

Crutchfield, R. D., Fernandes, A., & Martinez, J. (2010). Racial and ethnic disparity and criminal justice: How much is too much. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 100(3), 903-932.

Garland, B. E., Spohn, C., & Wodahl, E. J. (2008). Racial disproportionality in the American prison population: Using the Blumstein method to address the critical race and justice issue of the 21st century. Justice Policy Journal, 5(2), 2-42.

Mosher, C., & Pickerill, J. M. (2012). Methodological issues in biased policing research with applications to the Washington State Patrol. Seattle University Law Review, 35, 769-794.

Mustard, D. B. (2001). Racial, ethnic, and gender disparities in sentencing: Evidence from the US federal courts. Journal of Law and Economics, 44(1), 285–314.

Pettit, B., & Western, B. (2004). Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in U.S. American Sociological Review, 69(2), 151-169.

Quigley, B. (2011). Fourteen examples of racism in criminal justice system. New Orleans: Loyola University.

Schlesinger, T. (2005). Racial and ethnic disparity in pretrial criminal processing. Justice Quarterly, 22(2), 170-192.

Tonry, M. (2010). The social, psychological, and political causes of racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. Crime and Justice, 39(1), 273-312.

Wakefield, S., & Uggen, C. (2010). Incarceration and stratification. Annual Review of Sociology, 36(1), 387–406.

Walker, S., Spohn, C. C., & DeLone, M. (2012). The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Weich, R., & Angulo, C. (2002). Racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. In D.M. Piche, W. L. Taylor & R. A. Reed (Eds.). Rights at risk: Equality in an age of terrorism (pp. 185-218). Washington, DC: Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.

West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2010). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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