Recent years in American legislation has focused on reducing racial discrimination and disparities in the Criminal Justice field. News accounts sensationalize the issue, blurring the line between the two concepts to such an extent that many believe that the existing disparities are proof of discrimination. The issue is further compounded by numerous studies that seem simultaneously to both prove and disprove discrimination (Crutchfield, Fernandez, &Martinez, 2010). The reason for the failure of these studies is twofold: First, most studies rely primarily on statistical analysis and second, most studies fail to consider the role of motive.
Disparities in Criminal Justice
Disparities in the justice system in America have always existed, but until the 1950s, little research was conducted to understand the reasons and ramifications for disparities in the Criminal Justice system (Crutchfield, Fernandez, &Martinez, 2010). In recent decades, this issue has escalated to the extent that many states and the Federal Government have considered legislation aimed at correcting the problem, if such exists (Toth, Crews, &Burton, 2008).
Clearly to those who study the phenomena, males and African Americans are overrepresented in the prison populations, but the reasons elude researchers (MacNamara & Burns, 2009). One reason is that much of the focus has been entirely upon African-Americans, often resulting in emotionally charged news features that do little to solve the problem if one exists. Another reason is presumption and faulty logic as illustrated by Kamalu, Coulson-Clark, and Kamalu who stated,
“Aggregate data and statistics compiled supports the assumption that African Americans are disproportionately subjected to conditions such as racial profiling, traffic stops leading to searches and seizures yielding minor offenses that lead to incarceration, rather than probation or rehabilitation” (2010, p. 2).
Indeed, the incarceration figures for African American males are 13 times that of White males (Toth, Crews, & Burton, 2008). Although the data do support disproportionate rates of incarceration, the reasoning used by these researchers is faulty logic known as cherry picking (Klass, 2008). Their conclusion (that disparity means racial discrimination) may be valid, but their method of reaching that conclusion is not, which invalidates the entire study. As noted by Garland, Spohn, and Wodahl, “disparity is not necessarily tantamount to discrimination. Disparity only denotes a difference in outcomes, indicating that discrimination might be present” (2008, p. 5).
Discrimination and Criminal Justice
There can be little doubt that discrimination does exist within criminal justice because the field is composed of individuals who have their own beliefs and attitudes. However, of interest to researchers is whether or not discrimination occurs as a result of faulty practices and procedures. If the fault is with individuals, the issue must be handled on an individual basis as it occurs, but if the fault is systematic, overhauls would be needed (Roberts, 2007).
Judges hold considerable discretion when sentencing that may contribute to discrimination against males and African Americans (Kamalu, Coulson-Clark, & Kamalu, 2010). Davis suggested that Prosecutors could unwittingly encourage and advance discriminatory practices through their use of discretion (2007). In addition, police officers hold considerable discretion in their roles, which could also inadvertently advance discriminatory practices. Finally, even the arrestees can behave in ways that can encourage discrimination against them, as noted by Crutchfield, Fernandez, and Martinez:
“In 1964, Cross published ‘Negro, Prejudice, and the Police’ calling for police officers to recognize the social circumstances of blacks and for the fair treatment of individuals. That same year, Piliavin and Briar published their now classic paper, reporting that demeanor, which is related to race, was an important factor determining when police exercised the discretion to formally arrest.22 Black and Reiss followed with their report that demeanor was important, but less so than the wishes of victims, and that there are racial differences in the preferences of those victims; black victims more frequently demanded arrest” (2010, p. 906). “Demanded arrest?” More on this later.
The point here is that at virtually every level of the Criminal Justice system, there is considerable latitude that could result in discrimination. The challenge for researchers is to determine first if the problem of disparity is a result of racial discrimination and if so, how to combat the situation.
A Need to Understand Motives
As suggested by Reiss, demeanor or attitude can play a significant role in causing disparities; this applies to both the arresting officer and the suspect. Anecdotal evidence likewise suggests this is the case; one Louisiana State Trooper interviewed stated that a smiling face on driver’s license photos will benefit people who have been pulled over because it can put the officer in a calmer state of mind (Oakes, 1984).
Motivation is the foundation of a new theory of human behavior that suggests that all behavior, criminal or otherwise is driven by internal need. This theory states that “needs are motivating factors in human behavior” and “abberant behavior is nothing more than a clash of values” (Oakes, 2011, p. 4). In addition, values developed by groups of people often create the circumstances that lead to suppression by other groups. When this suppression involves the implementation of justice it can appear to be or in reality be discriminatory. For example, the national Drug War has contributed significantly to prison populations, especially for African Americans; 80% of all those in prison on drug charges are African American (Toth, Crews, & Burton, 2008). The prisoners of war in this theater tend to be dealers, the majority of which are African American for various reasons.
Hence, to fully understand whether the disparities within the Criminal Justice system are racially discriminatory or not would require a study to understand first the motives of all players, including the politicians who pass and perpetuate the laws affecting those arrested.
Although racial disparities do exist, current research is tenuous in proving a correlation between the disparities and racial discrimination. Because racial issues in America have an emotionally charged element, some research has fallen into the trap of beginning with false assumptions, thus delivering false conclusions. The issue is complex involving every player in the Criminal Justice arena including defendants and politicians; any attempt to determine if discrimination is systematic therefore must either encompass every possible element (which may be impossible) or focus on the dynamics of motives. To settle the issue of racial disparities in the Criminal Justice system with finality will require more than data analysis; empirical studies are needed.
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Crutchfield, R. D., Fernandez, A., & Martinez, J. (2010). Racial and Ethnic Disparity and Criminal Justice: How Much is Too Much? Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 100(3), 903-32.
Garland, B. E., Spohn, C., & Wodahl, E. J. (2008, Fall). 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), 1-42.
Kamalu, N. C., Coulson-Clark, M., & Kamalu, K. M. (2010, Spring). Racial Disparities in Sentencing: Implications for the Criminal Justice System and the African American Community. African Journal of Criminology & Justice Studies, 4(1), 1-31.
Klass, G. (2008). Just Plain Data Analysis: Common Statistical Fallacies in Analyses of Socila Indicator Data. Retrieved from http://polmeth.wustl.edu/media/Paper/2008KlassASA2.pdf
MacNamara, R. H., & Burns, R. (2009). Multiculturalism in the criminal justice system.New York,NY: McGraw Hill.
Oakes, C. J. (1984). Interview With Louisiana State Trooper D. D. , LA: .
Oakes, C. J. (2011, September 9). Why We Do What We Do. Retrieved from http://jeffoakes.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/why-we-do-what-we-do/
Roberts, D. (2007, Fall). CONSTRUCTING A CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM FREE OF RACIAL BIAS: AN ABOLITIONIST FRAMEWORK. Columbia Human Rights Law Review, 39(1), 261-685.
Toth, R. C., Crews, G. A., & Burton, C. E. (2008). In The Margins: Special Populations and Criminal Justice.Upper Saddle River,NJ: Pearson Prentis Hall.
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