Our broken justice system begins with a prevailing approach to policing that disproportionately targets communities of color. Such focused attention by law enforcement has resulted in 60% of our prison population being comprised of people of color who receive longer sentences than their white counterparts. Finally, it ends with the ultimate and most disturbing of all of its disparities — unequal death penalty sentencing.
Some, such as Professor Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) argue that our current system of justice does not operate to keep communities safe because it was never intended to be, and has not functioned as, a system designed to prevent violence and care for those who are harmed.
Consider these statistics:
- People of color are more likely to be stopped by police than others. While 44% of the New York City population was white between 2010 and 2012, 52% of those stopped by the NYPD's "stop and frisk" were black, 32% were Hispanic and only 9% were white.1
- According to self-reported data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans constituted 14% of drug users in 2006, only slightly higher than their percentage in the general population. Yet African Americans represented 35% of those arrested in 2006 for drug offenses, 53% of drug convictions, and 45% of drug offenders in prison in 2004 (the most recent year for which prison data are available).2
- One of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime and on any given day more than one in every ten African American men are in jail or prison. 3
- According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, African Americans in the federal system are sentenced to terms that are 10% longer than their white counterparts for the same offenses.
- An estimated 13% of African Americans cannot vote due to felony convictions4
- African Americans are routinely barred from jury service to the present day.
Alexander and others posit, with historical support, that the criminal justice system was originally designed to control the activities and movement of the slaves and freed men and women. Judge Leon Higginbotham, in his book In the Matter of Color, documents disparate sentences based on the race of the victim and the race of the perpetrator, including the sentence of death.
Alexander takes this analysis to the next level by arguing that the cumulative effect of our current system of justice operates to impose restrictions on the movements, economic standing, educational opportunity and political enfranchisement that are every bit as restrictive as the Jim Crow laws that have since been outlawed by the Constitution.
So it is not surprising that we find that our current criminal justice system does not protect people of color adequately; does not provide victims of crime in communities of color with equal access to resources and services; and imposes disproportionately harsh sentences on people of color, particularly when the victim of a crime is white.
Alexander observes, “It’s easy to be completely unaware that this vast new system of racial and social control has emerged… Unlike in Jim Crow days, there were no ‘Whites Only’ signs. This system is out of sight, out of mind.”
David Harris of the Charles Hamilton Institute makes a similar point, noting that the U.S.’s criminal justice system has legitimized and normalized death sentences based on race, eliminating the need for lynch mobs. He states “[L]ynchings often took the form not of frenzied killings but of deliberate, purposeful extensions of the administration of justice. Blacks were eliminated from juries, and courts meted out disproportionately harsh sentences to black defendants… Once new systems of disenfranchisement, debt peonage and segregation were firmly in place, mob violence gradually declined.”
What is clear is that the current system is broken and the burdens of its failures fall most heavily and unfairly on communities of color. There must be a fundamental change in the system.