Racial Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System


            Throughout the history of the United States, race has been an important issue in all aspects of the society. Although there has been significant reduction in the level of racial discrimination, it is still a defining topic in the American society. This significant reduction in racial discrimination has been as a result of the abolishment of formal racial discrimination in the civil rights era. It is not surprising to note that this problem has permeated the United States criminal justice systems. There is no doubt that despite the institutional and legal changes that made all formal racial discrimination in the United States illegal, race is an important factor in all aspects of the criminal justice system. This includes how the law enforcers carry out their responsibility, selection of the jury and sentencing (Katheryn, 2008).

Race in the Criminal Justice Systems

            The role of race in the criminal justice system has been a contentious issue for many years. Some scholars basing their argument on the disproportionate number of convicts from the minority races have maintained that all facets of the American criminal justice system are discriminative. On the other hand, some scholars also maintain that these arguments are not based on facts. Although it is important to analyze both sides of the arguments, there is some compelling evidence of racial discrimination in the justice systems. Due to the principle role of the criminal justice systems, ensuring justice is done to all; any malpractice should be taken with the seriousness it deserves.

According to Banks (2004), African Americans have been victims of formal and informal discrimination since the United States was founded. Since the slavery era, American systems have endorsed legislations and policies that have discriminated and segregated African Americans. The courts continued to enforce the Jim Crow’s laws until the second half of the 20th century when the courts started protecting the rights of African Americans. Other minority races such as the Latino Americans, Asian Americans and Indian Americans have also received similar discriminations by the criminal justice systems. Banks (2004) also noted that the criminal justice systems have over the years shown collaborations with the general society in promoting discrimination and stereotypes of Latino Americans. Overrepresentation of the Native Americans in the correctional facilities is also evident in the American criminal justice systems due to the negative effects of the changes in the American society on the marginalized natives.

Banks (2004) noted that there are some reports that maintain that there is no racial discrimination in the criminal justice systems. However, he points out some aspects of American justice systems where racial discrimination has been eminent over the years. It is also important to note that though many reports support the fact that race is an important factor in the criminal justice systems, they concur with the argument that the resultant racial discrimination is not systematic. Some of the areas in which Banks concluded to be dominated by unacceptable levels of racial discrimination include encounters of the law enforcement agents with the public. In many cases, the police and other law enforcement agents have been influenced by racial prejudice and stereotypes while making important decisions leading to discriminative racial profiling, arrests, shootings and police discretion. Bailing has also been considered to be another aspect of the criminal justice where racial discrimination is evident. The law gives guidelines on discretion by the judge or the offender. There are various factors that have to be considered before an offender can be released on bail. Although studies indicate that race is not a major factor in bailing, there is no doubt that it affects the decision of the judge or the prosecutor in many ways.  For example, the level of education or income influences the decision which gives members of the minority races a disadvantage since they are less educated.

            Racial discrimination in the selection of the jury has been an important issue in the criminal justice systems. Race has been entrenched in the jury selection for many years. Although this trend was overruled by the court, some states have tried to maintain an all white jury. Although individuals from any race are equally eligible for selection into the jury, the selection of individuals from the minority races has been very seldom. The authorities have argued that this is not a matter of racial discrimination stating that the selection is based on the experience, morality and abilities of the candidates.  However, this trend changed significantly in the 1930s but some reports indicate that racial discrimination is still evident in jury selection in the modern days (Banks, 2004).

            Racial discrimination in conviction and sentencing has been the most debated racial aspects in the criminal justice systems. Some interesting reports in discrimination in sentencing have been carried out with some supporting the view that the criminal justice systems in some instances have been lenient on convicts from the dominant race or a particular minority race while others have found no tangible evidence for these claims. Claims of racial discrimination in sentencing and convictions have however been supported by the disproportionate number of people of color in the American correctional facilities. Over two million adults are incarcerated in the American prisons with about seventy percent of them being people of color. This is disproportionate when the figure is compared to the total number in the general population. Moreover, research indicates that the rate of crimes among the people of color is roughly the same as the rate in the white population which suggests that the number of incarceration of each race should be fairly proportional to the percentage in the population (Banks, 2004).

            It is interesting to note that despite the blacks consisting of just over twelve percent of the United States population; almost fifty percent of all adults incarcerated in American prisons are blacks. When the crime rate is considered, reports indicates that over seventy percent of illegal drug users in the United States are whites but more blacks are arrested and convicted of drug related offences. According to Banks, researches in the 1970s and 1980s confirmed that there were cases where the offenders were favored or treated severely by the judicial systems based on their race. This mainly included drug related offences where black drug dealers were treated more severely by the justice systems when compared to the white dealers. Although the trends in the criminal justice systems with racial discrimination taking a new twist, there is evidence of reduced racial discrimination in sentencing in the last two decades. Today, discrimination is based on the social economic status of the individual where the privileged members of the minority race have attained the dominant race status and enjoy favorable prosecutor discretion or are able to bargain for more favorable deals. Studies have also established that race is an important factor in the prosecutor decision to seek capital punishment for the offender. In cases where the offender is black and the victim was white, a death penalty was found to be more likely (Katheryn, 2008).

            Discrimination in the criminal justice systems has had far reaching effects on the American society. Despite many attempts to reduce racial discrimination in these systems which has resulted into its decreases, past injustices has made it difficult to erase the race factor in criminal justice. Racial discrimination in the past promoted socioeconomic inequalities in the society and increased the social divide. The resulting marginalization of some races continues to rejuvenate race factor in the criminal justice. It is also important to note that the criminal justice systems are more or less the face of a broader society which is compounded by various forms of racial discrimination. This has forced the system to conform to the status of the society. For example, racial profiling and labeling of Latino Americans is a problem in the broader society and not the law enforcers who are also part of the society (Katheryn, 2008).


            There is no doubt that race was and still is an important factor in the administration of justice in the United States. From police responsibilities to prosecution, conviction and sentencing, race play an important role in the decision made by the officers responsible. Moreover, some historical legislatures and policies in the criminal justice systems have been discriminative. Racial discrimination in the justice system has resulted into wide spread disproportion in the American correctional facilities.


Banks, C. (2004). Criminal justice ethics: theory and practice, California, SAGE

Katheryn, R. (2008). The color of crime, New York, New York University Press

Sampson, R. and J. Lauritsen. (1997). “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Crime and Criminals in the United States.” in Ethnicity, Crime and Immigration: Comparative and Cross- National Perspectives. Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 311–374