Criminal Justice

While outcomes differ among jurisdictions, those who cannot afford an adequate defense are more likely to receive severe penalties. This falls more heavily on Blacks, who have significantly lower income than Whites and are also more likely to be treated prejudicially because of skin color. In the US, race and socioeconomic status combine for an African-American share of incarceration upwards of 35% compared to a 13% population segment[1].

Some policy makers and their media echo chambers attribute this disparity to a propensity toward crime. However, multiple studies show POC – and Blacks, in particular – are profiled, prosecuted, convicted and jailed at a higher rate than Whites. Certain laws have also had apparently unintended results. 

The War on Drugs focused policing on African-American neighborhoods, perceived as hotbeds of sales and use. Crack cocaine, seen as a Black drug, was assigned stiffer penalties than powder cocaine, used more by Whites. Arrest quotas encouraged corruption and evidence planting, and, in turn, increased arrests and convictions. In 1980, about 40,000 drug offenders were in prison; by 2011, the number had ballooned to 500,000, mostly low-level and without prior drug records. Conversely, the opioid ‘epidemic,’ predominant among Whites, is treated as a medical rather than criminal problem. 

Efforts to enact modest gun control laws have been hampered in part by racism. The narrative has shifted: from ubiquitous handguns (the Saturday Night Special) to encouragement of gun sales for ‘self-protection’ to gang-owned automatic weapons to open-carry laws. What does not seem to have changed is the expectation that young Black males carry weapons. This expectation has led to the use of lethal force and justification for shootings of unarmed victims.

[1] Board, The Editorial. “Even College Doesn’t Bridge the Racial Income Gap.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/20/opinion/college-racial-income-gap.html?_r=0.