Racial Discrimination in the American Criminal Justice System


On many occasions, the American criminal justice system has been accused of being racist. Such disparities turn into racial discrimination if people who are similar in their criminality are treated differently by the criminal justice system because of their race. For example, African Americans are arrested for drug offenses at more than twice the rate of whites, even though the African American youths have substantially lower rates of the most legal and illegal drugs’ use.

In most cases, reforming the system depends on how the problem is defined in terms of racist attitudes or social disparities related to race. To some people, however, the genesis of what is being experienced has to do with the fact that the American society is largely racist. Thus, eliminating racism from the criminal justice system is not likely to occur because the system is embedded in a larger racist society. Others believe that the relationship between racism and the criminal justice system is a reciprocal one. It is argued that racist institutions help produce a higher crime rate among minorities, and then racist fears of people of color help justify treating them more harshly when they are caught. Minority groups in the US are thus disadvantaged in so many ways.

This paper outlines the unfair treatment of minority groups in the United States. Because of their color or race, blacks and Hispanics as well as other minority citizens in the United States are often subjected to partial treatment unlike their white counterparts for similar crimes committed. The paper also considers the effects of racial discrimination within the criminal justice system and suggests ways to deal with the menace.


The way criminals are treated in a democratic society such as the United States is a very important consideration (Siegel & Senna, 2006). In order to gain the respect of the minority groups in the United States, the criminal justice system must be fair at every point in the process. It is imperative for the US government to do everything within its reach to ensure that the criminal justice system is approved by all. It is common sense that citizens will only develop confidence in the justice when they know and see that law enforcers as well as criminal justice officials have respect for what the Constitution says. Evidence shows that the American criminal justice system strays far from this ideal with the unequal treatment of minorities characterizing every stage of the process (Siegel & Senna, 2006). On many occasions, minority groups undergo dishonestly for very flimsy reasons. To a large extent, mistreatment of blacks, Hispanic Americans and other minority groups is perpetrated by people who are meant to protect the law and uphold the Constitution.

One of the challenges faced by the United States today concerns the flaws commonly witnessed within the criminal justice system (Kraska, 2001). Ostensibly, this interferes with actions taken by various stakeholders to address the menace of racial discrimination within the American society. One important aspect of the American values is the principle of equal treatment. The American value of equality is prominently announced and displayed in the national documents. The Declaration of Independence speaks of every single American being created equal, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to equal protection. Critics of the criminal justice system argue that discretionary decisions and other factors produce racial discrimination (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2012). Besides, it calls into question the country’s success in fulfilling the values that it claims to regard as supremely crucial. As such, we should look closely at whether or not discrimination exists in various criminal justice settings.

By and large, African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities are subjected to the criminal justice system at much higher rates than the white majority. African Americans account for 28 per cent of all arrests and more than one-third of all incarcerations in the United States, although only 13 per cent of the people in the United States are African Americans (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2012). Obviously, the incarceration rate for African Americans is more than 6 times greater than that for whites. Among every 100,000 African Americans in 2007, nearly 20 were killed with a gun, compared to 9 gun deaths among every 100,000 whites. The experiences of the minority group members with the criminal justice system may contribute to differences in their expressions of confidence about actors and institutions in the criminal justice system.

Race and Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are pervasive themes in contemporary American culture, especially when it comes to punishment (Kraska, 2001). For one thing, people of color are more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice system than whites. African Americans make up almost 40 per cent of the prison population while they only constitute about 13 per cent of all residents in the United States. Studies reveal that the rate at which minorities are incarcerated is quite high in comparison to whites (Kraska, 2001). If the trend continues, nearly one-third of the African American children born in the present generation will end up in prison during their life times.

America as a Racist Society

As noted earlier, some people claim that the American criminal justice system is racist because racism is embedded in the society. Evidence of racism appears in the way the society asks the criminal justice system to operate (Harr, Hess & Orthmann, 2011). For example, even after the Congress reduced the amount of crack cocaine needed for a specific mandatory sentence in 2010, the federal sentencing guidelines still punish users of crack cocaine more harshly than users of powder cocaine, even though the drugs are virtually identical in their chemical composition and effect on users. A primary difference is that whites tend to use cocaine in a powder form while people of color in their inner cities tend to use crack cocaine. Thus, the imposition of significantly harsher punishments for one form of the drug produces racial disparities in the imprisonment rates. Critics argue that the effects are enhanced by police officers’ emphasis on arresting visible crack dealers on the streets in poor neighborhoods rather than vigorously pursuing the more difficult to find powder cocaine traffickers who setup shops in suburban motels or rely on the suburban social networks (Harr et al., 2011). Moreover, studies on sentencing indicate that there is a very strong link between unemployment rates and rates of imprisonment than between the crime rates and the rates of imprisonment. This suggests that prisons are used during certain economic periods to confine people who cannot find jobs. Unfortunately, many of the unemployed are the African American men.

Another evidence of racism in the American society shows up in the stereotyping of offenders and reflects that under some circumstances, perceptions of certain minority groups as threatening may increase the extent to which they are subject to arrest. Thus, the fact that the Asian American defendants in federal courts receive sentences similar to those of whites and less severe than those imposed on African Americans and Hispanics may show the courtroom decision makers depict the society’s negative stereotypes about defendants from the latter two groups.

The fact that racist stereotyping affects police actions can be seen in cases of the African Americans and Hispanic professionals who have been falsely arrested when the police were looking for persons of color and these individuals were viewed as out of place. For example, Judge Claude Coleman was handcuffed and dragged through crowds of shoppers in Short Hills, New Jersey, while protesting his innocence. In another incidence, Princeton University Professor Cornel West was stopped on false cocaine charges while traveling to Williams College. Brain Roberts was also pulled over by the police as he drove through an affluent St. Louis neighborhood on his way to interview a judge for a class project (Cole, Smith & DeJong, 2012).

In June 2009, nationally prominent Harvard University Professor, Henry Louis Gates, an African American man, was arrested for arguing with a police officer on the front porch of his home after a passerby, who saw Gates struggling with a broken lock on his front door, called the police to investigate whether a break in might be occurring. Gates perceived that race played a role in the officer’s motives for asking for his identification and actually entering the house without justification. An element of race appeared in the officer’s written report on the incident when the officer claimed that the witness had said that two black men were attempting to enter the house even though the witness refuted the claim that there had been any report that the men involved were black. Other observers discussed whether the officer arrested Professor Gates primarily for showing disrespect to the officer notwithstanding the accusations of racism in the case.

The highly publicized case generated national debates about the continuing existence of racism in the society and the criminal justice system. Ultimately, the disorderly charges were dropped and President Barrack Obama hosted both men for a beer and a conversation at the White House in an effort to defuse the controversy that temporarily dominated the national news (Cole et al., 2012).

Race and Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System

Racial discrimination in the US criminal justice system has a long history. From 1930 when the federal government started maintaining an informational index on executions in the United States, death penalty jurisdictions have executed thousands of condemned prisoners. Nearly 50 % of all those executed are blacks and slightly less are whites (Free, 2003). Certainly, the numbers are quite disturbing as they reveal that death penalty jurisdictions have disproportionately executed minority prisoners when compared to their overall representation in the general population. While blacks constitute the majority of all executed prisoners, they form only a small percentage of the entire US population.

Apparently, racial discrimination as witnessed within the criminal justice systems affects all minority groups, guilty or otherwise (Solanke, 2012). Over the years, one could view the increased number of ideas regarding the unequal treatment of the minority citizens as they go about their businesses from day to day. They are harassed on the streets, at their homes, and at any other social place, all because of their skin color (Siegel & Senna, 2006). In many ways, the privacy of the blacks and other minority groups is interfered when they are stopped by the police for no genuine reason at all. The unfair treatment is quite humiliating and inconveniences the minority groups greatly as they go on with their daily lives. A major concern is the harsher treatment that minority citizens receive when they get involved in activities that are contrary to the rule of the law. Generally, all minorities are affected whenever one of them is subjected to the unfair treatment by law enforcement officers because of their race. The agony is felt by considering that next time another minority defendant will find himself or herself in the same situation.

Racial discrimination is mostly witnessed in areas dominated by blacks and other minority groups (Solanke, 2012). Eventually, the youthful population among the minority citizens ends up being jailed and spending most of their lifetimes behind bars. An increase in arrests of the minority citizens complicates things even more and makes the society associate lawlessness with the minority groups in the United States. The conclusion, therefore, is that lawlessness is a problem of the blacks and minorities. Although critics tend to claim otherwise, the unequal treatment of minority groups in the United States is rational by no standards.

The evidence shows that most of those incarcerated refer to the minority citizens and the main part of the minorities is not criminals as it is widely believed. Subjecting minority citizens to unfairness throughout the criminal justice system clearly points to the pronounced inequality that continues to be witnessed all over the United States. This further presents a reason for many to think that blacks, Hispanics, and other minority citizens are the greatest offenders in the country (Souryal, 2010). On the other hand, whites are considered to be less dangerous.

Critics of the criminal justice system view the high rates of arrests and imprisonment for African Americans and other minorities as a clear indication of the racial discrimination. Despite the law contains no racial bias, these critics claim that discrimination can and does always occur because criminal justice officials exercise discretion (Neubauer, 2007). As a matter of fact, there are many studies of racial discrimination at the sentencing stage in comparison to any other decision point within the criminal justice system. The earlier conducted studies often reported that extralegal factors such as race were responsible for differences in sanctions.

According to Walker, Spohn and DeLone (1996), a fair assessment of existing evidence indicates that the criminal justice system is characterized by disparities based on race and ethnicity. It is impossible to ignore the disproportionate number of minorities arrested, imprisoned, and on a death row. Largely, the decisions that produce these results involve instances of discrimination. Evidently, after all the evidence is considered, race still matters in the way criminals are treated (Walker et al., 1996).

However, some people argue that the over involvement of blacks in the criminal activities, along with some other factors, explain the disparities in arrests, sentencing, and imprisonment. Although race and ethnicity do not explain all the disparities that exist, they are important factors that can affect the criminal justice system and should not be ignored. A number of studies indicate persistent patterns of racial and ethnic disparities in the critical decision points of arrests and sentencing (Neubauer, 2007). Nevertheless, a contrary opinion is presented by Walker, Spohn and DeLone (1996), who argue that racial minorities are treated more harshly than whites at some stages of the criminal justice process but no differently at other stages.

Apparently, the treatment according minorities is more punitive than those according whites in some regions or jurisdictions. For example, some police departments tolerate excessive force directed at racial minorities or the use of racial profiling, whereas others do not. Racial minorities who commit crimes such as drug offenses or violent crimes against whites, or who have certain types of characteristics, are treated worse than whites who commit similar crimes or have the same characteristics. To a certain extent, the discrimination that exists is buried deep within the criminal justice system.

Effect of Race on the Conduct of Police

Law enforcement agents have been accused of perpetrating injustice right from the initial stages of dealing with crime. At every point of the entire criminal justice system process, blacks and Hispanics are unfairly targeted. Unfortunately, the police departments are not helping much to address the problem of race. They are the ones involved in the unfair arrests and thus play a significant role in getting African Americans, Hispanics, and other minority groups into prisons. They employ crude techniques while dealing with minority groups and this leads to dishonest treatment (Poyser & Milne, 2011). The racial generalizations that inform policing strategies in the United States today undermine trust in the criminal justice system as a whole and perpetuate a vicious cycle of criminalization.

Apparently, the unfavorable treatment received by the minority groups degenerates into other acts that only worsen the things for them. Law enforcers become prejudiced and subject innocent and guilty minorities to the same treatment. In addition to the humiliation of the minority citizens, they face brutality from the police and are accused of being corrupt. To many, impartial treatment of the American citizens is not right especially when the act is committed by a person who is supposed to be protecting other citizens.

Effects of Racial Discrimination on the Social Lives of Minority Citizens

The challenges faced by minority citizens because of racial discrimination have far-reaching effects including failure to secure employment due to the existing stereotypes. Within the frame of the unequal treatment, many tend to believe that minority citizens are criminals and thus treat them with much suspicion at every encounter. Consequently, many blacks, Hispanics, and other minority citizens are unable to provide for themselves and their families. They fail to earn enough to pare thus subjected to poverty and so much suffering.

Socially, minority citizens are seriously affected as a result of racial discrimination experienced within the criminal justice system. Mistreatment of minority citizens because of the race they belong to or their ethnicity creates a negative notion of who they really are. Together with their children, minority groups are labeled as bad people in the American society and have to be dealt with very cautiously. Certainly, this influences their decisions regarding where to stay, schools to attend as well as where and how they spend their leisure times.

The unfair treatment directed towards the minority groups as they grow up eventually puts them at a disadvantaged point and denies them the opportunity to compete fairly with their white population. Because of the schools they attended, they are generally considered to be inferior to their white counterparts in a number of ways. When recruiting, it is common to find employers giving preference to whites than the minority citizens.

Racial Profiling and Related Assumptions

Crime reaches the police through many ways. It may be by eyewitnesses or a person reporting the death of another one. However, it is common for the police to make their own discoveries concerning criminal activities (Travis, 2011). While doing their rounds, the police work as a team and take turns to assist each other to deal with any problem encountered. In doing all these, the police and other law enforcement officials are expected to act very discretely. The responsibility of determining suspects is mostly left with the police to decide who the suspicious persons are. They are also left to make decisions regarding any further investigations if needed and the neighborhoods to be targeted during police patrols.

Racial profiling based on the color of one’s skin is generally quite rampant. In most cases, blacks are arrested based on the assumption that they are the ones who are very likely to be involved in criminal activities (Travis, 2011). Unfortunately, this leaves most minorities at the mercy of ruthless law enforcement officers.

On numerous occasions, minorities have been treated unfairly by the US drug policies (Clear, Cole & Reisig, 2011). As noted earlier, the treatment directed at minorities has nothing to do with the assumption that they are the ones responsible for most crimes unlike the whites. Research indicates that both minorities and white Americans get involved in similar drug related criminal activities. Actually, drug offenses committed by white Americans are higher than those committed by the minority groups (Rice & Piquero, 2005). Besides, it is common to find those who use drugs, whether blacks or whites, getting the said drugs from people of a similar ethnic background. Obviously, the skewed approach taken to fight the war on drugs is founded on three issues. The number of minority citizens arrested based on drug related offenses, presence of severe sentencing for drug offenses, and the unfair treatment of the minority groups.

Existing evidence points to the fact that both blacks and whites found guilty of being possession of powder cocaine get similar jail terms. The same happens when the drug involved is crack cocaine. This notwithstanding, it is only a small number of white Americans who are found guilty of using crack cocaine. The arrests and subsequent conviction is biased considering that whites rarely use crack cocaine compared to their minority counterparts. The long sentences received by black offenders certainly imply that the American prisons end up being full of convicted blacks, Hispanics, and other minority citizens.

Racial profiling is also carried out in forms other than traffic stops. Apparently, the business of drug trafficking is regarded solely as an undertaking by the minority groups. This is clearly reflected by the actions of law enforcement authorities who include race as a central requirement of their profiling exercise. To most security officers and agents, a majority of those who deal with drugs are blacks and Hispanic Americans.

The US department of immigration has also been accused of racial profiling and has been found guilty of offering preferential treatment for the white population while subjecting the minority citizens to the unfair treatment. Severally, non-white individuals have been subjected to harsher treatment and targeted for questioning by immigration officials and the law enforcement team.

Although still supported by some, profiling is certainly a negative practice that should be strongly denounced by the US government and its people. In general, most criminal activities involve minority citizens and very few white Americans. Law enforcers use this claim to justify their spending on tracking the minority groups. This assumption, though baseless, is held by most whites and is responsible for the weird treatment that blacks and Hispanics are often subjected to (Goodey, 2009). To law enforcers, it is easy to arrest criminals by covertly tracking blacks and Hispanics without their knowledge. There is, however, no evidence to support such allegations by the police and other law enforcement officers. Despite being subjected to so much harassment, most blacks and Hispanics stopped by the police for random checks are found innocent and have to be allowed to proceed with their journeys. Nevertheless, there are many reasons to believe that blacks, Hispanic Americans, and other minority citizens are law abiding and would not rush to do anything that is contrary to what the law stipulates.

Clearly, the unfair actions of the police and other law enforcers directed towards minority citizens only serve to complicate their life. Essentially, being treated badly because of race is unacceptable and should be opposed. Many have resisted the idea of racial profiling based on the reasoning that it magnifies the effects of racial discrimination and gives people a reason to treat others as lesser beings and with no respect at all. In the end, crime is determined by one’s race such that minorities are regarded as more dangerous criminals than their white counterparts (Reed, 2010). Minority citizens thus become victims of stereotypes and suffer because of who they are. Ordinarily, innocent minorities are the ones who suffer most due to the existence of an unfair criminal justice system. Because of the harsh treatment experienced by minorities, they develop negative attitudes and mistrust for the criminal justice system and towards the law enforcement officers.

In a way, it has been argued that the damage due to racial profiling has far-reaching effects. Because of the skewed operations of the police targeting blacks and Hispanics, it is obvious that most offenders who end up in the American prisons are from the minority groups. Eventually, the minority citizens fill up the prisons. As such, the motivation is even higher to continue trailing blacks and Hispanics for various forms of offenses to end up with a higher number of criminals.

Moreover, the increased arrests among the minority citizens create an impression that most criminals in the United States are blacks, Hispanics, and other minority citizens.

Consequences of Racial Based Policing

Largely, the approach often taken by the police tends to endanger the lives of the minority citizens in addition to the unfairness and inconvenience experienced by the minority groups when they are targeted by the police. Various incidents have been reported of police shootings resulting from unjustified racial generalizations that put blacks and Hispanics at risk. Race greatly affects the way crime is generally dealt with in the United States and this has been widely researched by different scholars (Williams & Nichols, 2012). A case worth considering is the application of the death penalty.

Evidence reveals so much disparity in the way the death penalty is applied within the criminal justice system. It is obvious that anyone who is convicted of killing whites is easily given a death sentence. This is unlike those who are convicted for killing blacks or minority citizens. To a large extent, any criminal acts that involve killing of white Americans are treated quite harshly unlike instances where the victims are from the minority groups. Evidently, people who kill blacks receive lighter penalties while those who kill white Americans subjected to death sentences without much consideration. A number of studies have also revealed that the injustices witnessed within the criminal justice system are widely experienced by the minority citizens during the early stages of the process (Clear et al., 2011). Generally, it appears that the race of the accused and the race of the victim have a part to play when the unfair treatment is considered. Furthermore, the minority citizens are mostly the target and not white Americans. As studies reveal, the death penalty was mostly directed toward defendants from the minority community.


The repercussions of racial disparities in the criminal justice system remain a problem that the criminal justice policy makers in the United States must deal with. Three possible solutions have been identified. First, it is necessary to open up the corrections systems to a greater participation by people who come from the groups historically disadvantaged by the disparate treatment. Secondly, the US government and the Americans must refuse to tolerate incidents of blatant racism in the justice practices or policy. Finally, it is necessary to recognize that as long as racism is in force in the larger society, any attempts to eradicate it from the criminal justice system will have only marginal prospects of success. As long as some groups are unfairly excluded from the society’s opportunities, they will feel less obligated to obey its laws.

It is imperative for criminal justice officials not to act in the ways that lead to disparities in arrest and incarceration rates. At each stage of the process, policy makers must see to it that the system does not put minority group members at a disadvantage. Arguably, minority arrests have been greater due to the fact that police patrols are more heavily concentrated in areas where non-whites live, where drug use is more open, and where users are more likely to be observed by the police. Logically, higher arrest rates and prosecutions of minorities in the United States will create a scenario where they will be overspread among those receiving criminal punishment, including prison sentences.

Considering the many negative repercussions of racial discrimination within the American criminal justice system, policy makers must do all it takes to ensure fairness within the system. It is certainly inhuman to make people suffer because of their race or ethnicity.


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