In the criminal justice system, racial disparity occurs when a proportion of an ethnic group or race within the system’s control is bigger than proportions of other groups in the general society (Spohn, 1999). Causes of the disparities change from one system to another and include legislative policies, emphasis of law enforcement on some communities, criminal activity levels and decisions made by criminal justice officers who in one or more stages of the justice process exercise broad discretion.
Unwarranted or illegitimate racial disparity within the criminal justice system occurs when people of different races with similar offences are treated differently. In some cases this may be caused by overt racial biases while in others, it could be as a result of influences of factors that are not directly related to race. In addition, disparities could also be caused by institutions or individual decisions that may be race-based.
When race biased decisions are made at one stage during the sentencing process, they greatly affect outcome of the subsequent stages. For example ,if the minority group which is composed of the blacks get detained without proper trial more frequently compared to the whites because of the bail practices, they also face challenges of reduced access to treatment options, defense council and community resources.
The issue of ethnic and racial disparity in sentencing and imprisonment has been a central area of concern for many criminal justice researchers and scholars.
Disparities in the incarceration rates between the African-Americans and the whites have existed for many years. Research reveals that, black offenders tend to receive more serious and severe sentences compared to their white counterparts (Steffensmeier, 1998). Study done in the New York State revealed that minorities faced felony charges and had high chances of detention compared to their white counterparts.
The researchers came to a conclusion that 10 percent of the minority group detained within New York city and 33 percent of the inmates detained in other prisons within the state would have been set free before arraignment if the detention rates had been the same between the whites and the blacks (Spohn, 1999). Most recent evidences suggest that, although racial disparities have greatly changed over time, race stills plays a big role in the sentencing process.
Generally, racial discrimination is not explicitly displayed as it was fifty years ago in the American south, where the whites and blacks were handled differently by judicial authorities and law enforcement. Rather, currently discrimination happens in a more surreptitious manner, manifesting itself through connection of different factors which produce racially discriminatory outcomes (Thornberry, 1994).
Currently, African Americans constitute about 38% of USA jail and prison inmates when compared with their general population share of thirteen percent. The Latinos constitute around nineteen percent of the jail and prison population compared to their general population share of about fifteen percent.
An American black man born in 2001 has 32% chances of being imprisoned at some point in life; the Hispanic male posses about 17% while white men posses 6% chances of imprisonment (Spohn, 1999). In addition, while the African American youth constitute about seventeen percent of their age group in the general society, they represent 31% of cases referred to juvenile courts, 46% of the juvenile arrest and 41% of cases waived to the adult courts.
Racial disparities continue to challenge the basic value of the criminal justice system. In cases where disparities in handling criminal cases are as a result of racism, it is considered as an outright rejection of the core values and principle of equality in justice (Steffensmeier, 1998).
Professionals should always be committed towards exercising justice all the time regardless of the offender’s race. Similarly, in order for the members of the society to respect the sentencing process, the system should also reflect the expected and required societal values.
Spohn, C.A., Gruhl, J.B., & Welch, S.D. (1999) Effect of Race on Sentencing: A Re-Examination of an Unsettled Question.Sociology, 16(6), 71-76.
Steffensmeier, D.A., Ulmer, K.A., & Kramer, J.A. (1998). The interaction of race, Gender and age in criminal sentencing: The punishment cost of being young, black, and male. Criminology, 36(4), 763-798.
Thornberry, T.P. (1994). Race, socioeconomic status and sentencing in the juvenile Justice system. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 64(1),90-98.