The Criminal Justice System: Institutional Discrimination

Topic: Law Enforcement
Words: 1379 Pages: 5


The problem of inequality is a persistent phenomenon in American society with its deeply rooted racial disparities based on the historical context. Despite the constitutional and social changes that society has undergone over the past centuries, the issue of achieving equal treatment for all citizens remains tentative. One such problem is institutional discrimination that exists in multiple domains, including the justice system. The focus on this sphere is justified by the key importance of the law-enforcement field for the execution of justice and the pursuit of human rights. In particular, since the majority of the US society consists of white people, the discrimination against racial minorities in general and African Americans, in particular is omnipresent. In this paper, the manifestations, implications, and solutions applicable to institutional discrimination in the criminal justice system will be explored to emphasize the necessity to eliminate bias from the existing system.

Causes and Consequences of Institutional Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System

The causes of the issue of racial inequality in the criminal justice system of the USA stem from historically conditioned marginalization of African Americans due to slavery history. In particular, according to Hinton et al. (2018), following emancipation, Black Americans were exposed to the artificially applied laws allowing for their incarceration and slavery. Indeed, although the 13th Amendment states “citizens cannot be enslaved unless convicted of a crime,” some laws “intentionally targeted newly emancipated black people as a means of surveilling them and exploiting their labor” (Hinton et al., 2018, p. 2). Given their status as a minority, the community of people of color has been exposed to inequalities in the criminal justice system for several centuries.

Furthermore, from the theoretical perspective, the conflict theory and the social disorganization theory explain the causes of the persistent institutional discrimination against African Americans. In particular, since the White and the Black communities fought for their dominance and influence in relation to the possession of resources, and since white supremacy prevails, the Black community is disproportionately exposed to disparities (Rosino & Hughey, 2018). More broadly, the social disorganization theory holds that “crime and deviant behavior are evidence of social disorganization and that social disorganization causes crime and deviant behavior” (Rosino & Hughey, 2018, p. 865). Applying this circular logic to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, one might add that the stereotypical perception of African Americans as more prone to crime produces biased policies. These policies target African Americans for law enforcement, ultimately contributing to the statistics that demonstrate Black people’s prevalence in sentencing (Rosino & Hughey, 2018).

The bias in statistics has been addressed by Hetey and Eberhardt (2018), who investigated the problem of statistical representation of racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. Indeed, the researchers claim that “simply presenting evidence of extreme racial disparities in the criminal justice system can backfire” due to the deeper stereotyping of African Americans as criminals (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018, p. 183). Thus, the consequences of institutional discrimination are far-reaching and stigmatizing to the whole community of people of color who suffer from implicit bias within the criminal justice system.

Policies and Practices Contributing to Institutional Discrimination Against African Americans in the Criminal Justice System

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are observed throughout the multifaceted process of law enforcement. Indeed, African American men are more likely to be stopped and searched by the police in comparison to white men (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). For example, “t 60% of police stops were of African Americans, though they make up only 28% of the population of Oakland” (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018, p. 183). Similarly, racial bias is persistent in the likelihood of African Americans being suspects of murders, burglary, drug dealing, and other crimes, as well as being killed due to police violence (Kovera, 2019). Figure 1 vividly demonstrates the disparities between White and Black populations in relation to their exposure to law enforcement. In particular, the graph shows that the distribution of drug use and possession between the white and black races does not match the distribution of state-level and federal-level sentencing of individuals representing the two racial groups.

Racial disparities in drug arrests and sentencing in 2016 
Figure 1. Racial disparities in drug arrests and sentencing in 2016 

Thus, it is evident that the representatives of the community of people of color are disproportionately sentenced for drug offenses. Indeed, although African Americans comprise 13% of the whole U.S. population and 15% of all drug users in the country, they account for 38% of federal sentencing compared to 22% of white offenders (Hinton et al., 2018). Such statistics in a context allow for identifying the bias and not the stereotypical representation of Black people as criminals. Moreover, Black individuals are more likely to be wrongfully convicted, engage in unlawful behavior due to low socioeconomic status, be exposed to violence during imprisonment, and be sentenced to more severe punishments than White Americans (Kovera, 2019). More specifically, research shows that “it is well documented that White witnesses are more likely to misidentify Black and Hispanic perpetrators than White perpetrators” (Kovera, 2019, p. 1147). Ultimately, such reliance on biased judgment jeopardizes the presence of justice in criminal law.

Multiple laws and policies reinforce institutional discrimination and racism against African Americans in the US justice system. Indeed, it has been stated earlier that historical context and laws predisposed the contemporary justice system to biased attitudes toward Black people. However, contemporary laws are discriminatory as well, implying the implicit elevated risks for African Americans. For example, according to Hinton et al. (2018), the failure of the criminal justice laws to recognize social and economic disparities associated with African Americans exposes this population to disproportionate arrests and sentencing. Indeed, the drug-free zone laws impose special punishment for drug dealing around schools; however, since Black people reside in highly dense areas with more schools, their punishment under such laws is more likely (Hinton et al., 2018). Furthermore, the individual bias of key decision-makers has a significant level of influence on the criminal outcomes for Black people since prejudiced attitudes of judges, prosecutors, or police officers yield unjust verdicts (Hinton et al., 2018). In other words, implicit bias originating from social stereotypes ultimately affects law enforcement and causes racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Suggested Solutions to Reduce Institutional Discrimination in the Criminal Justice System

Such disproportionate exposure to unjust law enforcement and biased attitudes from decision-makers contributes to long-term implications for the Black community to adverse outcomes of the criminal status. In particular, discrimination causes poverty, which ultimately minimizes opportunities for proper education and employment, and threatens the lawful life of African Americans (Hinton et al., 2018). Moreover, due to high levels of arrests, most African American children have one of their parents incarcerated (Hinton et al., 2018). Therefore, to stop this vicious circle, the criminal justice system must be changed.

One of the effective approaches to doing so is by eliminating the avoidable causes of racial disparities. Indeed, the initiation of specific training for law enforcers to reduce implicit bias would benefit the whole system by recognizing and addressing discriminatory attitudes in a timely manner (Kovera, 2019). Another possible solution is “to constrain the ability of decision-makers to act on their racial biases” (Kovera, 2019, p. 1154). For example, the implementation of special testing procedures during law-enforcers employment might restrict people with racial discriminatory views from performing roles within the criminal justice system. Moreover, the increased level of monitoring and recording of the policing procedures, such as stops and searchers with the identification of race-related data, might reduce institutional discrimination (Kovera, 2019). Overall, the recommended solutions need to be implemented systematically and in combination to provide a higher level of effectiveness.


In summation, the exploration of the statistical evidence, historical causes, consequences, and contributing laws has demonstrated the prevalence of institutional discrimination against African Americans in the criminal justice system. In particular, stemming from racist laws following the emancipation of slaves, contemporary laws neglect the Black community’s social and economic disparities, designing biased laws and allowing for African Americans’ disproportionate exposure to law enforcement. It is imperative to develop bias-free non-discriminatory criminal laws and cultivate an institutional culture of zero tolerance for implicit bias across the justice system to ensure its prioritization of equality of all American citizens before the law.


Hetey, R. C., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2018). The numbers don’t speak for themselves: Racial disparities and the persistence of inequality in the criminal justice system. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 183-187.

Hinton, E., Henderson, L., & Reed, C. (2018). An unjust burden: The disparate treatment of Black Americans in the criminal justice system. Vera Institute of Justice, 1-20. Web.

Kovera, M. B. (2019). Racial disparities in the criminal justice system: Prevalence, causes, and a search for solutions. Journal of Social Issues, 75(4), 1139-1164.

Rosino, M. L., & Hughey, M. W. (2018). The war on drugs, racial meanings, and structural racism: A holistic and reproductive approach. American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 77(3-4), 849-892.

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