Today there are over 2 million Americans incarcerated in our jails and prisons. More than one half of them are black men and women. For many years racial discrimination has been a problem that is deeply-rooted in our criminal justice system. Racial discrimination is the result of unethical practices that were never properly addressed and fixed. These practices include racial profiling, disparity practices, unethical police behavior, and prosecutorial misconduct (St. Hilaire 1). This has caused overcrowding in our correctional facilities and has lead to increased racial tension within.
Initially racial discrimination was factored in a legal model where race was used to control the rights of individuals. These practices continued on through the civil war and led to the introduction of the Jim Crow laws in 1876 (St. Hilaire 1). According to criminologist Robert Staples, the criminal justice system was founded by whites to safeguard their own “interests”. He also found that ninety percent of crimes committed by blacks never went to trial, and the alleged criminals were convicted without due process (St. Hilaire 1). In 1985 Cornell Law professor Sheri Lynn Johnson studies a dozen mock-jury trials, some cases had white defendants and other had African American defendants. She concluded that “race of the defendant significantly affects the determination of guilt.” She also found that white jurors were more likely to find a black defendant guilty than a white defendant even though the trials were based on the same crime and the same evidence. She concluded that attributing guilt on the basis of race was a subconscious decision (St. Hilaire 2).
In today’s society incarceration rates are the highest they have ever been. With 2 million Americans currently incarcerated with one million of them being African American our jails and prisons are filling rapidly. For a variety of reason violent crime dramatically increased during the 1960s and 1970s, mostly in urban areas, leading to a much stronger stand against crime in the late 70s. Because of this the federal expenditure for law enforcement greatly increased, law enforcement officers were given greater discretion in suppressing crime (Marable 1). Many argue that this is the beginning of the profound racial discrimination in the criminal justice system today. Behind the anti-crime standpoint was a subtle racial undertone, a projection of stereotypes that linked blacks to crime (Marable 1).
Along with the increase of federal money came the rapid expansion of personnel in the criminal justice system, as well as the construction of many new prisons (Marable 1). From 1871 to 1981 New York had opened 33 state pens. From 1982 to 1999 38 state pens were constructed (Marable 1). As of December 1989 the United States prison population had reached one million for the first time, an incarceration rate of one out of every 250 citizens (Marable 1).
But by the early 1990s rates of violent crime began to plummet but the incarceration rate continued to climb. The vast majority of the new prisoners were non-violent offenders convicted mostly of drug charges (Marable 2). In New York African Americans and Latinos made up 25% of the total prison population but by 1999 they comprised 83% of all state prisoners and 94% of all drug related offenders (Marable 2). Currently African Americans nationally make up 75% of all incarcerated drug offenders (Marable 2).
Today the racial proportions of those under some form of correctional supervision, including jail, prison, probation, and parole are jaw-dropping; one in fifteen white males, one in ten Latino males, and one in three for African American males (Marable 2). Statistically one out of every eight black males will be arrested in their lifetime (Marable 2).
The costs of this racially discriminated criminal justice system are through the roof. It currently costs an average of $70,000 to construct a typical prison cell and $25,000 annually to supervise and maintain each prisoner (Marable 2).
However there is a cost of this system that is even more devastating than the financial aspect. It has created a racial stereotype of African Americans as being violent, aggressive, hostile, and short-tempered. Therefore “black crime” is associated with violent crime. These stereotypes greatly influence whites’ judgment about crime because “black crime” does not make people think about tax evasion, embezzlement, or other types of white collar crime (Marable 2). This racial bias has been well established, especially in capital cases where killers of white victims are far more likely to receive the death sentence than those who murder African Americans (Marable 3).
Prison is also a breeding ground for racial biases and stereotypes. It is a place where extreme bigotry is all around (Jones 1). Once a person has entered prison identifying with a group can mean the difference between life and death. While some inmates are drawn together by a common hometown or type of crime the most common alliances are forged on the lines of ethnicity and race, with hostility toward those who do not belong (Jones 1). Criminologists say they believe that racial disturbances will increase as prisons become more crowded and sentences get longer; a trend that has been continuing for the past few decades. But the racism in jails is at first not about a racist ideology or hatred for one race. First it is about protection, and then comes power, and as your relationship with one group continues you eventually buy into their ideologies (Jones 1).
Racial discrimination is the result of unethical practices that have never been fixed and so continue to haunt our criminal justice system till this day. This has lead to racial sterotypes and biases that are both unethical and unequal and a system that is supposed to be just for everyone. It has also lead to the overcrowding of our prisons and the highest incarceration rates ever. For many including myself the racialized prison industrial complex is the great moral and political challenge of our time (Marable 2). It is something that must be fixed before it tears our country apart racially.