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Social Activism and Data Analysis: Racial Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System

Social Activism and Data Analysis: Racial Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System


Whereas the US recognized the importance of having the first African-American president, issues of race remain prevalent in the 21st century. Accordingly, there has been a growing interest in racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system. Consider these: the brutal police beating of Rodney King in 1992, which spurred major riots in Los Angeles and across the US, O.J Simpson’s high profile trial as well as charges, arrest of racial profiling involving Henry Louis Gate, a Harvard professor, and Albert Woodfox’s 44 years in solitary confinement (Mauer, 2011). The issues of racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system have been brought to light by such cases. In particular, it is striking that even though African Americans and other minorities like Hispanics make up a small number in the US, they are highly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. This paper will address the issue of racial incarceration and disparities in the criminal justice system in the US and make suggestions to lessen these disparities.

Institutional Inequality in the Criminal Justice System

Even though Hispanics and African Americans only comprise 30 percent of the population in the US, they constitute over 56 percent of the population in prison (Vogel & Porter, 2016). The disparities between Whites and Blacks are highly pronounced, with African American males being incarcerated at approximately seven times the rate of White males (Vogel & Porter, 2016). Hetey and Eberhardt (2018) claim that in Oakland, California, 60 percent of police stops involve African Americans, who only make up 28 percent of Oakland’s population, and generally, Black men tend to be incarcerated in federal or state prison six times compared to white men. With almost half the population of Black males being imprisoned by 23, the prospects of securing employment, attending or completing school, and fully participating in the community are lessened. Hispanics’ incarceration rate is also noteworthy as it is three times more than white males’ incarceration. With a continuation of these trends, there is the probability of having one out of every three Black males born in the 21st century to be incarcerated one or more times in their lifetime compared to only 1 in 17 White males and 1 in 6 Hispanics (Vogel & Porter, 2016).

Hetey and Eberhardt (2018) claim that between 2004 and 2012, there were 4.4 million stops made, and about 88 percent of these stops led to no further action (implying that the majority were not doing anything wrong), but 83 percent of the cases, the individuals being stopped were most probably Black or Hispanic. Furthermore, even though it has been established that marijuana use among Blacks is lower compared to Whites, more Blacks have been stopped on suspicion of possessing marijuana (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018).

There is conflicting data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation regarding the number of incarcerations of various races. For instance, in 2016, the FBI (2016) records that about 69.6 percent of people arrested were White, whereas Blacks comprised only 26.9 percent. Furthermore, among arrested adults, 70.2 percent were whites, 26.2 blacks, and 3.6 percent comprised other races. Additionally, 59 percent of individuals arrested for violent crimes were Whites. However, Blacks comprised 52 percent of individuals arrested for murder, while Whites constituted 45.4 percent, and other races constituted 2.6 percent (FBI, 2016). This data seems to conflict with what other scholars claim regarding the over-five times rate of Blacks being incarcerated compared to whites. However, it is clear that when it comes to crimes that are deserving of longer sentences in federal prisons, such as murder, Blacks are overrepresented.

Factors Contributing to Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Bacchini and Lorusso (2019) claim that Black people are more likely than Whites to commit certain types of crimes due to the psychological, cultural, social, and economic factors from present and past racism, which influences personal choices and life conditions. The social force brought by White racism has produced racial disparities in the distribution of wealth, making more Blacks prone to criminality. Inequitable access to resources is a key player in the high delinquency rates among various races in the US. Blacks generally have low educational opportunities (due to inadequate resources like books and qualified teachers in public schools with a majority of Blacks), low employment opportunities, poor access to health care, and low-income levels compared to whites (Nellis, Greene & Mauer, 2018).

These factors have been commonly linked to high delinquency levels, and the policies used to curb delinquency only propagate such behaviors. Overt racial bias with commonly held stereotypes such as black criminality, aggression, and physical strength also influence the criminal justice system’s racial disparities. This explains the numerous stops and suspicions by police and the mistreatment such as excessive force used on Black males during arrest, as evidenced in the case of George Floyd and Rodney King. In Rodney King’s case, one of the police officers claimed that he believed his life was in danger since King acted like an animal, was aggressive and violent, hence the need for excessive force on him, even though video footage showed how defenseless and helpless King was (Lindsay & Thomas, 1992). This reflects the stereotype of exaggerated strength and aggression among blacks and their inability to feel pain.

One factor that has enhanced major disparities in the criminal justice system is face recognition. Since blacks are overrepresented in criminal justice databases, their faces are often searched against. A face recognition system normally finds individuals who are in a database. Since African Americans are the majority, they are more likely than Whites to be stopped, investigated, arrested, incarcerated, and sentenced due to the errors made by the face recognition system (Bacchini & Lorusso, 2019).

Contribution of Policies to Racial and Ethnic Disparities

Legislative policies have played a key role in the disparities existing in the criminal justice system. One of them is the war on drugs. Black people tend to be arrested for drug offenses at a higher rate than white people. The war on drugs propagated aggressive law enforcement punitive sanctions and tactics aimed at low-level drug offenders, affecting individuals of various races, particularly Blacks. At the federal level, mandatory ten-year and five-year sentencing policies for crack cocaine offenses are commonly enacted, resulting in the imprisonment of various African Americans (Nellis, Greene & Mauer, 2018). However, Rothwell (2014) notes that Whites are more likely than Blacks to sell and use drugs, yet Blacks are 3.6 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for drug-related crimes.

Further, the three-strike legislation has also enhanced disparities in the criminal justice system. This legislation assigns compulsory life sentences without parole for repeat felony offenders who have committed crimes three or more times. This legislation seems to have been prompted by the abduction and killing of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a repeat offender. Given that this crime involved a child, it triggered highly emotional and extremely punitive policy responses that disproportionately affect minorities. Research shows that over two-thirds of prisoners who have been sentenced to life imprisonment in the US are Blacks (Folley, 2021). Ingraham (2017) adds that Black men who have committed similar crimes as Whites obtain federal prison sentences that are about 20 percent longer than Whites.

Solitary confinements, which are harsh punishments with major health detriments like anxiety, depression, withdrawal, self-harming, apathy, suicidal behavior, and impulse control disorder, tend to be applied more to Blacks compared to Whites (Pullen-Blasnik, Simes & Western, 2021). This can be evidenced in the 44-year solitary confinement of Albert Woodfox. Such harsh penalties work against the majority of the minority races in the US who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. However, any efforts to make reforms that would eliminate the racial disparities are generally met with resistance by law enforcement officials like prosecutors (Davis, 2007).

Impact on the Minority Communities

One of the effects of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system is a confirmation of overt biases and stereotypes associated with minority communities. These disparities also take away major opportunities from minorities. For instance, by the age of 30, over half of White males will have a degree, whereas Black males will have a criminal record (Vogel & Porter, 2016). This means that the increased incarcerations take away the opportunity to continue with education and lessen the chances of employment once one gets back into society. This could result in a cycle of poverty and criminality as a majority of the offenders tend to re-offend. According to Healthy People (2020), the US releases more than seven million individuals from jail yearly, but over half of them tend to be incarcerated again within three years. The high recidivism rates are common due to housing, employment, family, and health problems: Blacks have higher recidivism rates as they usually return to neighborhoods prone to crime, poverty, and high unemployment (Lockwood et al. 2015).

Policy Strategies for Lessening Institutional Discrimination

A change in the war on drugs policy can play a key role in lessening the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Instead of such harsh strategies to deal with the issue of drugs in society, it would be important to focus on community-based options for addressing drug problems (Mauer, 2011). Nellis, Greene, and Mauer (2018) propose more funding to be directed towards education and prevention, and treatment programs at the community level to lessen drug-related crimes.

Nellis, Greene, and Mauer (2018) also recommend the need for cultural competency training among law enforcement officials. This should entail an introduction of the police to the residents and cultural characteristics of different neighborhoods to help the police understand the community culture. This training should include using the departmental database to take note of criminal activities by race and be aware of disparate treatment and patterns by street officers. If a pattern is identified, then policies should be put in place to address the issue and take the necessary action. Individuals who are promoted to managerial positions also need to have high cultural competency and be well-educated concerning issues of race.


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