The American criminal justice system raises many concerns among ethnic minorities within this diverse country as we see rising reports of police brutality along with racial disparity in length of sentences given for same crimes. Among these concerns, there are also issues regarding limited opportunities post-conviction, despite how long or serious the sentence was. These concerns and the damage that is done through a broken criminal justice system to the future outlook of individuals is an issue that clearly needs to be addressed, and we see the rise of activist groups such as Black Lives Matter as a direct result of this. Another example of a direct response to these issues is the creation of the Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization that works to raise awareness and push through reform regarding sentencing and its collateral effects. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project spoke at the Massachusetts State House recently, stressing the importance of reform and the pathways that are open to instigate this change. Looking even further ahead, the long term impact that a racially and ethnically divided criminal justice system has on the people of the country and to the proper functionality of the country needs to be addressed as well. As things stand, disfunction at the local level of this magnitude causes extreme polarization, a direct cause of discontent and erosion of the democratic system.
The United States before the 2000s focused heavily on mass incarceration to deter crime and the results were less than satisfactory since the prisons were overflowing with “criminals”. Although this issue has since been addressed and is improving, the United States still leads the world in the use of incarceration with over 1.3 million people currently in prison across the state. Of these prisoners, it is important to note that 90% of the prisoners in the United States are not at the federal level, but rather within the states (3). Furthermore, the underlying concept of racial discrimination instilled within the roots of the system highly tilts makeup of the 1.3 million people in prison towards minorities making up most of it. African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin, the disparity is more than 10 to 1. Experts have long studied the rates of incarcerations and the racial makeup of the prison population and there is no debate as to the evident racial disparities that are a part of the system. However, when we consider the causes of the racial disparity we are faced with different outcomes (1).
There is an overclouding sense of racial discrimination instilled within the system that supplements varying causes as argued for having more or less importance based on individual findings such as: criminal record, social and economic standing, unemployment, education. All these underlying categories tend to be a larger problem for minorities within the country and the result is a broken criminal justice system. The issues at hand, such as that of social and economic standing as well as education play a major role in the continuation of the problem beyond the sentencing. The way the system works currently, incarcerations tend to last too long and furthermore, once an individual gets out of prison, he/she has little to no life opportunities.
Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project spoke heavily on what life looks like post prison and the findings leave a lot to be desired. The Sentencing Project focuses primarily on drug related crimes and the outcomes of those. Mauer gave an example of a woman who was indicted for a minor drug offence for which she served time. After being released from prison, she was unable to provide for her family and children since her indictment led to her food stamp supply being stopped, since criminals are not eligible for them. This coupled with minimal employment opportunities leads to a very poor quality of life post prison, which results in her and other individuals going back to a life of crime.
There are multiple issues at hand in these cases. The first is that of racial discrimination instilled within the system, and the second is that of the system leading to poor results and life opportunities. The Sentencing Project introduces ideas and potential legislation that would eliminate the life sentence, citing it as ineffective and more costly long-term rather than a deterrent to crime. The system is rather complex and adding to its complexity are the varying state laws that have different processes and bases of judgement. A more clear and concise set of rules that does not vary from state to state would go a long way in decreasing discrimination within the system as the racial makeup of every state is different. In addition, a system that promotes reform and second chances for minor crimes should be put in place, allowing for alternatives and future opportunities post indictment. Limiting opportunities and using the system of punishment has not done any favors to American society as the result is a large scale racial divide. The issue of race and disparity in sentencing is directly addressed through reform of the system as a whole that moves even further away from the push of mass incarceration.
It is also evident how the government is split based on party lines when it comes to the issues of sentencing and racial discrimination within the criminal justice system. Both have gone as far as to recognize the need for change, however the means by which both view a solution is vastly differing. Democrats view the system as misplaced and aim to address the issues of racial discrimination instilled within it and end mass incarceration. Furthermore, they view movements such as Black Lives Matter as helpful in raising awareness to an issue. On the other hand, Republicans believe that the laws in place currently hinder the law enforcement to do their job correctly, which is what causes the issues that we are facing. They go about it by emphasizing keeping the streets safe by putting prisoners behind bars (3).
The discontent that an issue such as criminal justice raises is unquestioned. A country that is made of solely of minorities and immigrants from all over the world has one of, if not the biggest issue of criminal justice in the whole world. Minorities cannot feel safe in a country so racially divided both politically and generally. The parties promote opposing views that leave many polarized from the system and misrepresented. The lack of a middle ground hurts the functionality of the democratic system in place, allowing for individuals to feel mistreated by it and want to fight against the corruption of it. The current system hosts a plethora of problems that become evident in our day to day lives. The best way to address the issue of sentencing and the outcomes of the current criminal justice is to make the necessary changes and do more than just patch up the holes in the broken system. This is an effort that may take time, but looking towards other alternatives that take a more reformatory approach to dealing with criminals are viable and it is past due time we make these changes.
- Nellis, A. (2016). The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons. The Sentencing Project.
- Bonczar, T. (2003). Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population. 1974-2001. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.
- Chammah, Maurice. (2016). Two Parties, Two Platforms on Criminal Justice. The Marshall Project.