Racial Bias and the Criminal Justice System

The national conversation we’re having about race and the law requires a sharp analysis. We must come to terms with at least a few important facts:

1.) Americans with black or brown skin are disproportionately charged and imprisoned in this country. This is evidence of systemic racial bias in the criminal justice system at large.

As Michelle Alexander has explained, “Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.” Yet, “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 7; see her p. 264 for the sources of this data).

2.) Americans with black or brown skin are disproportionately accused/stopped of/for wrongdoing by law enforcement officers despite being innocent.

For the first two charges here let’s examine the data from New York City. While it’s true that these numbers only apply to NYC, they’re probably the best available since NYC maintains nearly unmatched data collection (and now that ‘stop and frisk’ has nearly ended entirely, they’re less skewed by local policy).

For the first 3/4 of 2014 the NYPD has released the following stats:
– 82% of those stopped were completely innocent
– 81% of those stopped had black or brown skin (African American or Latino)
– 12% of those stopped were white

This reveals at least three obvious things. First, the vast majority of police stops happen to completely innocent citizens. Second, people with darker skin are stopped disproportionately. Third, deductively, people with darker skin in NYC are stopped disproportionately despite being innocent more than 75% of the time. There’s no other conclusion to reach than racial profiling is not only real but a serious problem in NYC. Don’t be mistaken, though, it’s not only true for NYC – Indianapolis has its troubles as well (just less data).

3.) Americans with black or brown skin are far more likely to be maltreated and/or killed by a law enforcement officer than someone who has white skin.

Because cases of excessive force are rarely brought to light, and even less often prosecuted, there seems to be no pure data on whether or not law enforcement officers are more prone to use excessive force on people with darker skin. However a Pew Research article indicates that this indeed seems to be true.

To top all of this off, ProPublica has recently released an analysis of the best data we have (which is certainly less than ideal) concerning the use of lethal force used by law enforcement officers. Their findings are that black and brown citizens are 21 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers than white citizens.


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