The Harvard Gazette

Solving racial disparities in policing, an overhaul for justice.

Protesters in NYC.

National & World Affairs

Protesters take a knee in front of New York City police officers during a solidarity rally for George Floyd, June 4, 2020.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Experts say approach must be comprehensive as roots are embedded in culture

By Colleen Walsh Harvard Staff Writer

Date February 23, 2021 February 24, 2021

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Christina Cross.

Racial wealth gap may be a key to other inequities

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The fight for environmental justice

March in NYC demanding climate and racial equality.

View all of Unequal


“Unequal” is a multipart series highlighting the work of Harvard faculty, staff, students, alumni, and researchers on issues of race and inequality across the U.S. The first part explores the experience of people of color with the criminal justice legal system in America.

It seems there’s no end to them. They are the recent videos and reports of Black and brown people beaten or killed by law enforcement officers, and they have fueled a national outcry over the disproportionate use of excessive, and often lethal, force against people of color, and galvanized demands for police reform.

This is not the first time in recent decades that high-profile police violence — from the 1991 beating of Rodney King to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 — ignited calls for change. But this time appears different. The police killings of Breonna Taylor in March, George Floyd in May, and a string of others triggered historic, widespread marches and rallies across the nation, from small towns to major cities, drawing protesters of unprecedented diversity in race, gender, and age.

According to historians and other scholars, the problem is embedded in the story of the nation and its culture. Rooted in slavery, racial disparities in policing and police violence, they say, are sustained by systemic exclusion and discrimination, and fueled by implicit and explicit bias. Any solution clearly will require myriad new approaches to law enforcement, courts, and community involvement, and comprehensive social change driven from the bottom up and the top down.

While police reform has become a major focus, the current moment of national reckoning has widened the lens on systemic racism for many Americans. The range of issues, though less familiar to some, is well known to scholars and activists. Across Harvard, for instance, faculty members have long explored the ways inequality permeates every aspect of American life. Their research and scholarship sits at the heart of a new Gazette series starting today aimed at finding ways forward in the areas of democracy; wealth and opportunity; environment and health; and education. It begins with this first on policing.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad traces the history of policing in America to “slave patrols” in the antebellum South, in which white citizens were expected to help supervise the movements of enslaved Black people.

Photo by Martha Stewart

The history of racialized policing

Like many scholars, Khalil Gibran Muhammad , professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School , traces the history of policing in America to “slave patrols” in the antebellum South, in which white citizens were expected to help supervise the movements of enslaved Black people. This legacy, he believes, can still be seen in policing today. “The surveillance, the deputization essentially of all white men to be police officers or, in this case, slave patrollers, and then to dispense corporal punishment on the scene are all baked in from the very beginning,” he  told NPR  last year.

Slave patrols, and the slave codes they enforced, ended after the Civil War and the passage of the 13th amendment, which formally ended slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” But Muhammad notes that former Confederate states quickly used that exception to justify new restrictions. Known as the Black codes, the various rules limited the kinds of jobs African Americans could hold, their rights to buy and own property, and even their movements.

“The genius of the former Confederate states was to say, ‘Oh, well, if all we need to do is make them criminals and they can be put back in slavery, well, then that’s what we’ll do.’ And that’s exactly what the Black codes set out to do. The Black codes, for all intents and purposes, criminalized every form of African American freedom and mobility, political power, economic power, except the one thing it didn’t criminalize was the right to work for a white man on a white man’s terms.” In particular, he said the Ku Klux Klan “took about the business of terrorizing, policing, surveilling, and controlling Black people. … The Klan totally dominates the machinery of justice in the South.”

When, during what became known as the Great Migration, millions of African Americans fled the still largely agrarian South for opportunities in the thriving manufacturing centers of the North, they discovered that metropolitan police departments tended to enforce the law along racial and ethnic lines, with newcomers overseen by those who came before. “There was an early emphasis on people whose status was just a tiny notch better than the folks whom they were focused on policing,” Muhammad said. “And so the Anglo-Saxons are policing the Irish or the Germans are policing the Irish. The Irish are policing the Poles.” And then arrived a wave of Black Southerners looking for a better life.

More in the Unequal series

Illustration of Ana Billingsley.

But how do you translate an appetite for change into reality?

In his groundbreaking work, “ The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America ,” Muhammad argues that an essential turning point came in the early 1900s amid efforts to professionalize police forces across the nation, in part by using crime statistics to guide law enforcement efforts. For the first time, Americans with European roots were grouped into one broad category, white, and set apart from the other category, Black.

Citing Muhammad’s research, Harvard historian Jill Lepore  has summarized the consequences this way : “Police patrolled Black neighborhoods and arrested Black people disproportionately; prosecutors indicted Black people disproportionately; juries found Black people guilty disproportionately; judges gave Black people disproportionately long sentences; and, then, after all this, social scientists, observing the number of Black people in jail, decided that, as a matter of biology, Black people were disproportionately inclined to criminality.”

“History shows that crime data was never objective in any meaningful sense,” Muhammad wrote. Instead, crime statistics were “weaponized” to justify racial profiling, police brutality, and ever more policing of Black people.

This phenomenon, he believes, has continued well into this century and is exemplified by William J. Bratton, one of the most famous police leaders in recent America history. Known as “America’s Top Cop,” Bratton led police departments in his native Boston, Los Angeles, and twice in New York, finally retiring in 2016.

Bratton rejected notions that crime was a result of social and economic forces, such as poverty, unemployment, police practices, and racism. Instead, he said in a 2017 speech, “It is about behavior.” Through most of his career, he was a proponent of statistically-based “predictive” policing — essentially placing forces in areas where crime numbers were highest, focused on the groups found there.

Bratton argued that the technology eliminated the problem of prejudice in policing, without ever questioning potential bias in the data or algorithms themselves — a significant issue given the fact that Black Americans are arrested and convicted of crimes at disproportionately higher rates than whites. This approach has led to widely discredited practices such as racial profiling and “stop-and-frisk.” And, Muhammad notes, “There is no research consensus on whether or how much violence dropped in cities due to policing.”

Gathering numbers

In 2015 The Washington Post began tracking every fatal shooting by an on-duty officer, using news stories, social media posts, and police reports in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Brown, a Black teenager in Ferguson, Mo. According to the newspaper, Black Americans are killed by police at twice the rate of white Americans, and Hispanic Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate.

Such efforts have proved useful for researchers such as economist Rajiv Sethi .

A Joy Foundation Fellow at the Harvard  Radcliffe Institute , Sethi is investigating the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers, a difficult task given that data from such encounters is largely unavailable from police departments. Instead, Sethi and his team of researchers have turned to information collected by websites and news organizations including The Washington Post and The Guardian, merged with data from other sources such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Census, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rajiv Sethi

A Joy Foundation Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Rajiv Sethi is investigating the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers,

Courtesy photo

They have found that exposure to deadly force is highest in the Mountain West and Pacific regions relative to the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states, and that racial disparities in relation to deadly force are even greater than the national numbers imply. “In the country as a whole, you’re about two to three times more likely to face deadly force if you’re Black than if you are white” said Sethi. “But if you look at individual cities separately, disparities in exposure are much higher.”

Examining the characteristics associated with police departments that experience high numbers of lethal encounters is one way to better understand and address racial disparities in policing and the use of violence, Sethi said, but it’s a massive undertaking given the decentralized nature of policing in America. There are roughly 18,000 police departments in the country, and more than 3,000 sheriff’s offices, each with its own approaches to training and selection.

“They behave in very different ways, and what we’re finding in our current research is that they are very different in the degree to which they use deadly force,” said Sethi. To make real change, “You really need to focus on the agency level where organizational culture lies, where selection and training protocols have an effect, and where leadership can make a difference.”

Sethi pointed to the example of Camden, N.J., which disbanded and replaced its police force in 2013, initially in response to a budget crisis, but eventually resulting in an effort to fundamentally change the way the police engaged with the community. While there have been improvements, including greater witness cooperation, lower crime, and fewer abuse complaints, the Camden case doesn’t fit any particular narrative, said Sethi, noting that the number of officers actually increased as part of the reform. While the city is still faced with its share of problems, Sethi called its efforts to rethink policing “important models from which we can learn.”

Fighting vs. preventing crime

For many analysts, the real problem with policing in America is the fact that there is simply too much of it. “We’ve seen since the mid-1970s a dramatic increase in expenditures that are associated with expanding the criminal legal system, including personnel and the tasks we ask police to do,” said Sandra Susan Smith , Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice at HKS, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. “And at the same time we see dramatic declines in resources devoted to social welfare programs.”

Brandon Terry

“You can have all the armored personnel carriers you want in Ferguson, but public safety is more likely to come from redressing environmental pollution, poor education, and unfair work,” said Brandon Terry, assistant professor of African and African American Studies and social studies.

Kris Snibble/Harvard file photo

Smith’s comment highlights a key argument embraced by many activists and experts calling for dramatic police reform: diverting resources from the police to better support community services including health care, housing, and education, and stronger economic and job opportunities. They argue that broader support for such measures will decrease the need for policing, and in turn reduce violent confrontations, particularly in over-policed, economically disadvantaged communities, and communities of color.

For Brandon Terry , that tension took the form of an ice container during his Baltimore high school chemistry final. The frozen cubes were placed in the middle of the classroom to help keep the students cool as a heat wave sent temperatures soaring. “That was their solution to the building’s lack of air conditioning,” said Terry, a Harvard assistant professor of African and African American Studies and social studies. “Just grab an ice cube.”

Terry’s story is the kind many researchers cite to show the negative impact of underinvesting in children who will make up the future population, and instead devoting resources toward policing tactics that embrace armored vehicles, automatic weapons, and spy planes. Terry’s is also the kind of tale promoted by activists eager to defund the police, a movement begun in the late 1960s that has again gained momentum as the death toll from violent encounters mounts. A scholar of Martin Luther King Jr., Terry said the Civil Rights leader’s views on the Vietnam War are echoed in the calls of activists today who are pressing to redistribute police resources.

“King thought that the idea of spending many orders of magnitude more for an unjust war than we did for the abolition of poverty and the abolition of ghettoization was a moral travesty, and it reflected a kind of sickness at the core of our society,” said Terry. “And part of what the defund model is based upon is a similar moral criticism, that these budgets reflect priorities that we have, and our priorities are broken.”

Terry also thinks the policing debate needs to be expanded to embrace a fuller understanding of what it means for people to feel truly safe in their communities. He highlights the work of sociologist Chris Muller and Harvard’s Robert Sampson, who have studied racial disparities in exposures to lead and the connections between a child’s early exposure to the toxic metal and antisocial behavior. Various studies have shown that lead exposure in children can contribute to cognitive impairment and behavioral problems, including heightened aggression.

“You can have all the armored personnel carriers you want in Ferguson,” said Terry, “but public safety is more likely to come from redressing environmental pollution, poor education, and unfair work.”

Policing and criminal justice system

Alexandra Natapoff , Lee S. Kreindler Professor of Law, sees policing as inexorably linked to the country’s criminal justice system and its long ties to racism.

“Policing does not stand alone or apart from how we charge people with crimes, or how we convict them, or how we treat them once they’ve been convicted,” she said. “That entire bundle of official practices is a central part of how we govern, and in particular, how we have historically governed Black people and other people of color, and economically and socially disadvantaged populations.”

Unpacking such a complicated issue requires voices from a variety of different backgrounds, experiences, and fields of expertise who can shine light on the problem and possible solutions, said Natapoff, who co-founded a new lecture series with HLS Professor Andrew Crespo titled “ Policing in America .”

In recent weeks the pair have hosted Zoom discussions on topics ranging from qualified immunity to the Black Lives Matter movement to police unions to the broad contours of the American penal system. The series reflects the important work being done around the country, said Natapoff, and offers people the chance to further “engage in dialogue over these over these rich, complicated, controversial issues around race and policing, and governance and democracy.”

Courts and mass incarceration

Much of Natapoff’s recent work emphasizes the hidden dangers of the nation’s misdemeanor system. In her book “ Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal ,” Natapoff shows how the practice of stopping, arresting, and charging people with low-level offenses often sends them down a devastating path.

“This is how most people encounter the criminal apparatus, and it’s the first step of mass incarceration, the initial net that sweeps people of color disproportionately into the criminal system,” said Natapoff. “It is also the locus that overexposes Black people to police violence. The implications of this enormous net of police and prosecutorial authority around minor conduct is central to understanding many of the worst dysfunctions of our criminal system.”

One consequence is that Black and brown people are incarcerated at much higher rates than white people. America has approximately 2.3 million people in federal, state, and local prisons and jails, according to a 2020 report from the nonprofit the Prison Policy Initiative. According to a 2018 report from the Sentencing Project, Black men are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are 3.1 times as likely.

Reducing mass incarceration requires shrinking the misdemeanor net “along all of its axes” said Natapoff, who supports a range of reforms including training police officers to both confront and arrest people less for low-level offenses, and the policies of forward-thinking prosecutors willing to “charge fewer of those offenses when police do make arrests.”

She praises the efforts of Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins in Massachusetts and George Gascón, the district attorney in Los Angeles County, Calif., who have pledged to stop prosecuting a range of misdemeanor crimes such as resisting arrest, loitering, trespassing, and drug possession. “If cities and towns across the country committed to that kind of reform, that would be a profoundly meaningful change,” said Natapoff, “and it would be a big step toward shrinking our entire criminal apparatus.”

Nancy Gertner

Retired U.S. Judge Nancy Gertner cites the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines, arguing that all too often they have been proven to be biased and to result in packing the nation’s jails and prisons.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo

Sentencing reform

Another contributing factor in mass incarceration is sentencing disparities.

A recent Harvard Law School study found that, as is true nationally, people of color are “drastically overrepresented in Massachusetts state prisons.” But the report also noted that Black and Latinx people were less likely to have their cases resolved through pretrial probation ­— a way to dismiss charges if the accused meet certain conditions — and receive much longer sentences than their white counterparts.

Retired U.S. Judge Nancy Gertner also notes the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines, arguing that all too often they have been proven to be biased and to result in packing the nation’s jails and prisons. She points to the way the 1994 Crime Bill (legislation sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware) ushered in much harsher drug penalties for crack than for powder cocaine. This tied the hands of judges issuing sentences and disproportionately punished people of color in the process. “The disparity in the treatment of crack and cocaine really was backed up by anecdote and stereotype, not by data,” said Gertner, a lecturer at HLS. “There was no data suggesting that crack was infinitely more dangerous than cocaine. It was the young Black predator narrative.”

The First Step Act, a bipartisan prison reform bill aimed at reducing racial disparities in drug sentencing and signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018, is just what its name implies, said Gertner.

“It reduces sentences to the merely inhumane rather than the grotesque. We still throw people in jail more than anybody else. We still resort to imprisonment, rather than thinking of other alternatives. We still resort to punishment rather than other models. None of that has really changed. I don’t deny the significance of somebody getting out of prison a year or two early, but no one should think that that’s reform.”

  Not just bad apples

Reform has long been a goal for federal leaders. Many heralded Obama-era changes aimed at eliminating racial disparities in policing and outlined in the report by The President’s Task Force on 21st Century policing. But HKS’s Smith saw them as largely symbolic. “It’s a nod to reform. But most of the reforms that are implemented in this country tend to be reforms that nibble around the edges and don’t really make much of a difference.”

Efforts such as diversifying police forces and implicit bias training do little to change behaviors and reduce violent conduct against people of color, said Smith, who cites studies suggesting a majority of Americans hold negative biases against Black and brown people, and that unconscious prejudices and stereotypes are difficult to erase.

“Experiments show that you can, in the context of a day, get people to think about race differently, and maybe even behave differently. But if you follow up, say, a week, or two weeks later, those effects are gone. We don’t know how to produce effects that are long-lasting. We invest huge amounts to implement such police reforms, but most often there’s no empirical evidence to support their efficacy.”

Even the early studies around the effectiveness of body cameras suggest the devices do little to change “officers’ patterns of behavior,” said Smith, though she cautions that researchers are still in the early stages of collecting and analyzing the data.

And though police body cameras have caught officers in unjust violence, much of the general public views the problem as anomalous.

“Despite what many people in low-income communities of color think about police officers, the broader society has a lot of respect for police and thinks if you just get rid of the bad apples, everything will be fine,” Smith added. “The problem, of course, is this is not just an issue of bad apples.”

Sandra Susan Smith

Efforts such as diversifying police forces and implicit bias training do little to change behaviors and reduce violent conduct against people of color, said Sandra Susan Smith, a professor of criminal justice Harvard Kennedy School.

Community-based ways forward

Still Smith sees reason for hope and possible ways forward involving a range of community-based approaches. As part of the effort to explore meaningful change, Smith, along with Christopher Winship , Diker-Tishman Professor of Sociology at Harvard University and a member of the senior faculty at HKS, have organized “ Reimagining Community Safety: A Program in Criminal Justice Speaker Series ” to better understand the perspectives of practitioners, policymakers, community leaders, activists, and academics engaged in public safety reform.

Some community-based safety models have yielded important results. Smith singles out the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets program (known as CAHOOTS ) in Eugene, Ore., which supplements police with a community-based public safety program. When callers dial 911 they are often diverted to teams of workers trained in crisis resolution, mental health, and emergency medicine, who are better equipped to handle non-life-threatening situations. The numbers support her case. In 2017 the program received 25,000 calls, only 250 of which required police assistance. Training similar teams of specialists who don’t carry weapons to handle all traffic stops could go a long way toward ending violent police encounters, she said.

“Imagine you have those kinds of services in play,” said Smith, paired with community-based anti-violence program such as Cure Violence , which aims to stop violence in targeted neighborhoods by using approaches health experts take to control disease, such as identifying and treating individuals and changing social norms. Together, she said, these programs “could make a huge difference.”

At Harvard Law School, students have been  studying how an alternate 911-response team  might function in Boston. “We were trying to move from thinking about a 911-response system as an opportunity to intervene in an acute moment, to thinking about what it would look like to have a system that is trying to help reweave some of the threads of community, a system that is more focused on healing than just on stopping harm” said HLS Professor Rachel Viscomi, who directs the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program and oversaw the research.

The forthcoming report, compiled by two students in the HLS clinic, Billy Roberts and Anna Vande Velde, will offer officials a range of ideas for how to think about community safety that builds on existing efforts in Boston and other cities, said Viscomi.

But Smith, like others, knows community-based interventions are only part of the solution. She applauds the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson Police Department after the shooting of Brown. The 102-page report shed light on the department’s discriminatory policing practices, including the ways police disproportionately targeted Black residents for tickets and fines to help balance the city’s budget. To fix such entrenched problems, state governments need to rethink their spending priorities and tax systems so they can provide cities and towns the financial support they need to remain debt-free, said Smith.

Rachel Viscomi.

Rethinking the 911-response system to being one that is “more focused on healing than just on stopping harm” is part of the student-led research under the direction of Law School Professor Rachel Viscomi, who heads up the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program.

Jon Chase/Harvard file photo

“Part of the solution has to be a discussion about how government is funded and how a city like Ferguson got to a place where government had so few resources that they resorted to extortion of their residents, in particular residents of color, in order to make ends meet,” she said. “We’ve learned since that Ferguson is hardly the only municipality that has struggled with funding issues and sought to address them through the oppression and repression of their politically, socially, and economically marginalized Black and Latino residents.”

Police contracts, she said, also need to be reexamined. The daughter of a “union man,” Smith said she firmly supports officers’ rights to union representation to secure fair wages, health care, and safe working conditions. But the power unions hold to structure police contracts in ways that protect officers from being disciplined for “illegal and unethical behavior” needs to be challenged, she said.

“I think it’s incredibly important for individuals to be held accountable and for those institutions in which they are embedded to hold them to account. But we routinely find that union contracts buffer individual officers from having to be accountable. We see this at the level of the Supreme Court as well, whose rulings around qualified immunity have protected law enforcement from civil suits. That needs to change.”

Other Harvard experts agree. In an opinion piece in The Boston Globe last June, Tomiko Brown-Nagin , dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute and the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at HLS, pointed out the Court’s “expansive interpretation of qualified immunity” and called for reform that would “promote accountability.”

“This nation is devoted to freedom, to combating racial discrimination, and to making government accountable to the people,” wrote Brown-Nagin. “Legislators today, like those who passed landmark Civil Rights legislation more than 50 years ago, must take a stand for equal justice under law. Shielding police misconduct offends our fundamental values and cannot be tolerated.”

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Report Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

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Easily browse the critical components of this report…


Throughout the nation, people of color are far more likely to enter the nation’s justice system than the general population. State and federal governments are aware of this disparity, and researchers and policymakers are studying the drivers behind the statistics and what strategies might be employed to address the disparities, ensuring evenhanded processes at all points in the criminal justice system. This primer highlights data, reports, state laws, innovations, commissions, approaches and other resources addressing racial and ethnic disparities within our country’s justice systems, to provide information for the nation’s decision-makers, state legislators.

Examining the Data and Innovative Justice Responses to Address Disparities

For states to have a clear understanding of the extent of racial and ethnic disparities in the states, they need to have data from all stages of the criminal justice system.

1. Law Enforcement

Disparities within traffic stops.

Contact with law enforcement, particularly at traffic stops, is often the most common interaction people have with the criminal legal system.

According to a  large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States , “police stop and search decisions suffer from persistent racial bias.” The study, the largest to date, analyzed data on approximately 95 million stops from 21 state patrol agencies and 35 municipal police departments across the country. The authors found Black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset, when it is more difficult to determine a driver’s race, suggesting bias in stop decisions. Furthermore, by examining the rate at which stopped drivers were searched and turned up contraband, the study found that the bar for searching Black and Hispanic drivers was lower than that for searching white drivers.

The study also investigated the effects of legalization of recreational cannabis on racial disparities in stop outcomes—specifically examining Colorado and Washington, two of the first states to legalize the substance. It found that following the legalization of cannabis, the number of total searches fell substantially. The authors theorized this may have been due to legalization removing a common reason officers cite for conducting searches. Nevertheless, Black and Hispanic drivers were still more likely to be searched than white drivers were post-legalization.

Data Collection Requirements in Statute

At least 23 states and the District of Columbia have laws related to or requiring collection of data when an individual is stopped by law enforcement. Some of these laws specifically prohibit racial profiling or require departments to adopt a policy to the same effect. Collection of demographic data can serve as a means of ensuring compliance with those provisions or informing officials on current practices so they can respond accordingly.

States have employed many reporting or other requirements for evaluation of the data collected under these laws. For example, Montana requires agencies to adopt a policy that provides for periodic reviews to “determine whether any peace officers of the law enforcement agency have a pattern of stopping members of minority groups for violations of vehicle laws in a number disproportionate to the population of minority groups residing or traveling within the jurisdiction…”

Maryland’s law requires local agencies to report their data to the Maryland Statistical Analysis Center. The center is then tasked with analyzing the annual reports from local agencies and posting the data in an online display that is filtered by jurisdiction and by each data point collected by officers.

The amount and kind of data collected also varies state by state. Some states leave the specifics to local jurisdictions or require the creation of a form based on statutory guidance, but most require the collection of demographic data including race, ethnicity, color, age, gender, minority group or state of residence. Notably, Missouri’s law requires collection of the following 10 data points:

  • The age, gender and race or minority group of the individual stopped.
  • The reasons for the stop.
  • Whether a search was conducted because of the stop.
  • If a search was conducted, whether the individual consented to the search, the probable cause for the search, whether the person was searched, whether the person’s property was searched, and the duration of the search.
  • Whether any contraband was discovered during the search and the type of any contraband discovered.
  • Whether any warning or citation was issued because of the stop.
  • If a warning or citation was issued, the violation charged or warning provided.
  • Whether an arrest was made because of either the stop or the search.
  • If an arrest was made, the crime charged.
  • The location of the stop.

State laws differ as to what kind of stop triggers a data reporting requirement. For example, Florida’s law applies to stops where citations are issued for violations of the state’s safety belt law. While Virginia’s law is broader, requiring all law enforcement to collect data pertaining to all investigatory motor vehicle stops, all stop-and-frisks of a person and all other investigatory detentions that do not result in arrest or the issuance of a summons.

Cultural Competency and Bias Reduction Training for Law Enforcement

At least 48 states and the District of Columbia have statutory training requirements for law enforcement. These laws require law enforcement personnel statewide to be trained on specific topics during their initial training and/or at recurring intervals, such as in-service training or continuing education.

In most states, the law simply requires training on a subject, leaving the specifics to be determined by state training boards or other local authorities designated by law. However, some states, such as Iowa and West Virginia, have very detailed requirements and even specify how many hours are required, the subject of the training, required content, whether the training must be received in person and who is approved to provide the training.

Overall, at least 26 states mandate some form of bias reduction training. Find out more about these laws on NCSL’s Law Enforcement Training webpage.

Law Enforcement Employment and Labor Policies

States have also addressed equity and accountability in policing through certification and accountability measures and hiring practices.

For example, a 2020 California law ( AB 846 ) changed state certification requirements by expanding current officer evaluations to screen for various kinds of bias in addition to physical, emotional or mental conditions that might adversely affect an officer’s exercise of peace officer powers. The law also requires the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to study, review and update regulations and screening materials to identify explicit and implicit bias against race or ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, disability or sexual orientation related to emotional and mental condition evaluations.

In addition to screening, the California law requires every department or agency that employs peace officers to review the job descriptions used in recruitment and hiring and to make changes that deemphasize the paramilitary aspects of the job. The intent is to place more emphasis on community interaction and collaborative problem-solving.

Nevada ( AB 409 ), in 2021, added to statutory certification requirements mandating evaluation of officer recruits to identify implicit bias on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or gender identity expression. That same year, Nevada also enacted legislation ( SB 236 ) that requires law enforcement agencies to establish early warning systems to identify officers who display bias indicators or demonstrate other problematic behavior. It also requires increased supervision, training and, if appropriate, counseling to officers identified by the system. If an officer is repeatedly identified by the early warning system, the law requires the employing agency to consider consequences, including transfer from high-profile assignments or other means of discipline.

Another area of interest for states has been hiring a more diverse workforce in law enforcement and support agencies. For example, New Jersey SB 2767  (2020) required the state Civil Service Commission to conduct a statewide diversity analysis of the ethnic and racial makeup of all law enforcement agencies in the state.

Finally, at least one state addressed bias in policing through a state civil rights act. Massachusetts ( SB 2963 ) established a state right to bias-free professional policing. Conduct against an aggrieved person resulting in decertification by the Police Office Standards and Training Commission constitute a prima-facie violation of the right to bias-free professional policing. The law also specifies that no officer is immune from civil liability for violating a person’s right to bias-free professional policing if the conduct results in officer decertification.

Disproportionality of Native Americans in the Justice System According to the U.S. Department of Justice, from 2015 to 2019, the number of American Indian or Alaska Native justice-involved individuals housed in local jails for federal correctional authorities, state prison authorities or tribal governments increased by  3.6% . Though American Indian and Alaska Natives make up a small proportion of the national incarcerated population relative to other ethnicities, some jurisdictions are finding they are disproportionately represented in the justice system. For example, in  Pennington County , S.D., it is estimated that 10% to 25% of the county’s residents are Native American, but they account for 55% of the county’s jail population. Similarly, Montana’s Commission on Sentencing  found  that while Native Americans represent 7% of the state’s general population, they comprised 17% of those incarcerated in correctional facilities in 2014 and 19% of the state’s total arrests in 2015.

Modal title

2. pretrial release and prosecution, risk assessments.

Recently, state laws have authorized or required courts to use pretrial risk assessment tools. There are about  two dozen pretrial risk assessment tools in use  across the states. 

Laws in Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey and Vermont require courts to adopt or consider risk assessments in at least some, if not all, cases on a statewide basis. While laws in Colorado, Illinois, Montana, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia authorize or encourage, but do not require, adopting a risk assessment tool on a statewide basis.

This broad state adoption of risk assessment tools raises concern that systemic bias may impact their use. In 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder  said  pretrial risk assessment tools “may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and our society.”

More than 100 civil rights organizations expressed similar concerns in  a statement  following a 2017 convening. The dependance of pretrial risk assessment tools on data that reflect systemic bias is the crux of the issue. The statement highlights that police officers disproportionately arrest people of color, which impacts risk assessment tools that rely on arrest data. The statement then set out key principles mitigating harm that may be caused by risk assessments, recognizing their broad use across the country.

The conversation about bias in pretrial risk assessments is ongoing. In 2021, the Urban Institute published the report “ Racial Equity and Criminal Justice Risk Assessment .” In the report, the authors discuss and make recommendations for policymakers to balance the use of risk assessment as a component of evidence-based practice with pursuing goals of reducing racial and ethnic disparities. The authors state that “carefully constructed and properly used risk assessment instruments that account for fairness can help limit racial bias in criminal justice decision-making.”

Academic studies show varied results related to the use of risk assessments and their effect on racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. One study, “ Racist Algorithms or Systemic Problems ,” concludes “there is currently no valid evidence that instruments in general are biased against individuals of color,” and, “Where bias has been found, it appears to have more to do with the specific risk instrument.” In another study, “ Employing Standardized Risk Assessment in Pretrial Release Decisions ,” the authors, without making causal conclusions, find that “despite comparable risk scores, African American participants were detained significantly longer than Caucasian participants … and were less likely to receive diversion opportunity.”

In a recent report titled “ Civil Rights and Pretrial Risk Assessment Instruments ,” the authors recommend steps to protect civil rights when risk assessment tools are used. The report underscores the importance of expansive transparency throughout design and implementation of these tools. It also suggests more community oversight and governance that promotes reduced incarceration and racially equitable outcomes. Finally, the report suggests decisions made by judges to detain should be rare, deliberate and not dependent solely on pretrial risk assessment instruments.

States are starting to regulate the use of risk assessments and promote best practices by requiring the tool to be validated on a regular basis, be free from racial or gender bias and that documents, data and records related to the tool be publicly available.

For example, California (2019  SB 36 ) requires a pretrial services agency validate pretrial risk assessment tools on a regular basis and to make specified information regarding the tool, including validation studies, publicly available. The law also requires the judicial council to maintain a list of pretrial services agencies that have satisfied the validation requirements and complied with the transparency requirements. California published its most recent validation  report  in June 2021.

Similarly, Idaho (2019  HB 118 ) now requires all documents, data, records and information used to build and validate a risk assessment tool to be publicly available for inspection, auditing and testing. The law requires public availability of ongoing documents, data, records and written policies on usage and validation of a tool. It also authorizes defendants to have access to calculations and data related to their own risk score and prohibits the use of proprietary tools.

Pretrial Release

A  recent report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights  evaluates the civil rights implications of pretrial release systems across the country.

Notable findings from the report include stark racial and gender disparities in pretrial populations with higher detention rates and financial conditions of release imposed on minority populations. The report also finds that more than 60% of defendants are detained pretrial because of an inability to pay financial conditions of release. 

States have recently enacted legislation to address defendants’ ability to pay financial conditions of release, with at least 11 states requiring courts to conduct ability-to-pay considerations when setting release conditions.  NCSL’s Statutory Framework of Pretrial Release report  has additional information about state approaches to pretrial release.

Prosecutorial Discretion

Prosecutorial discretion is a term used to describe the power of prosecutors to decide whether to charge a person for a crime, which criminal charges to file and whether to enter into a plea agreement. Some argue this discretion can be a source of disparities within the criminal justice system.

The  Prosecutorial Performance Indicators  (PPI), developed by Florida International University and Loyola University Chicago, is an example of an effort to address this. PPI provides prosecutors’ offices with a method to measure their performance through several indicators, including racial and ethnic disparities. As part of their work to bring accountability and oversight to prosecutorial discretion, PPI has created six measures specifically related to racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. The PPI measures include the following:

  • Victimization of Racial/Ethnic Minorities.
  • Case Dismissal Differences by Victim Race/Ethnicity.
  • Case Filing Differences by Defendant Race/Ethnicity.
  • Pretrial Detention Differences by Defendant Race/Ethnicity.
  • Diversion Differences by Defendant Race/Ethnicity.
  • Charging and Plea Offer Differences by Defendant Race/Ethnicity.

Below is a table highlighting disparity  data discovered through the use of PPI measures , gathered from specific jurisdictions.

Young People in the Justice System

As is the case in the adult system, compared to young white people, youth of color are disproportionately represented at every stage in the nation’s juvenile justice system. Overall juvenile placements  fell by 54%  between 2001 and 2015, but the placement rate for Black youth was 433 per 100,000, compared to a white youth placement rate of 86 per 100,000. According to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy organization, titled “ Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019 ,” 14% of all those younger than 18 in the U.S. are Black, but they make up 42% of the boys and 35% of the girls in juvenile facilities. Additionally, Native American and Hispanic girls and boys are also overrepresented in the juvenile justice system relative to their share of the total youth population.  Information  from California reveals that prosecutors send Hispanic youth to adult court via “direct file” at over three times the rate of white youth.

At the federal level, the 2018 reauthorized  Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act  requires states to identify and analyze data on race and ethnicity in state, local and tribal juvenile justice systems. States must identify disparities and develop and implement work plans to address them. States are required to document how they are addressing racial and ethnic disparities and establish a coordinating body composed of juvenile justice stakeholders to advise states, units of local government and Native American tribes. If a state fails to meet the act’s requirements, it will result in a 20% reduction of formula grant funding.

An example of a coordinating council that has examined extensive data is the Equity and Justice for All Youth Subcommittee of the  Georgia Juvenile Justice State Advisory Group . The group conducted a county-by-county assessment and analysis of disproportionality in Georgia and found one of the most effective ways to reduce disproportionate treatment of youth is to reduce harsh disciplinary measures in schools. This in turn helps reduce disproportionate referrals to the system.

3. Incarceration

Incarceration statistics help paint a picture of the disparities in the criminal justice system. Significant racial and ethnic disparities can be seen in both jails and prisons. According to the MacArthur Foundation’s  Safety and Justice Challenge website , “While Black and Latinx people make up 30% of the U.S. population, they account for 51% of the jail population.”

An  October 2021 report  from The Sentencing Project, an organization advocating for criminal justice reform, found that “Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at nearly five times the rate of whites, and Latinx people are 1.3 times as likely to be incarcerated than non-Latinx whites.” At the time of the report, there were 12 states where more than half of the prison population is Black and seven states with a disparity between the Black and white imprisonment rate of more than 9 to 1.

To have a clearer sense of the racial makeup of who is incarcerated at any given time, some systems developed data dashboards to provide information on their jail populations. In Allegheny County, Pa., for instance, the  jail data dashboard  is publicly available and provides a range of information on who is incarcerated in the jail. The dashboard provides an up-to-the-day look at the race, gender and age of the jail population. According to the dashboard, on average from Jan. 1, 2019, to mid-November 2021, 65% of individuals in the jail were Black.

Dashboards may also be established by the individual state, though these generally look back over a specified time, rather than providing a close-to-live look at the jail population. Colorado passed a law in 2019 ( HB 1297 ) requiring county jails to collect certain data and report it to the state Division of Criminal Justice on a quarterly basis. That data is compiled in a publicly available  Jail Data Dashboard . The dashboard includes information on the racial and ethnic makeup of jail populations in the state. In the second quarter of 2021, 88% of people incarcerated in jails in the state were white, 16% were Black, 2% were Native American and 1% were classified as “other race.” In the same quarter, ethnicity data for incarcerated people showed 67% were non-Hispanic, 33% were Hispanic and 9% were classified with “unknown ethnicity.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections has an online  dashboard  providing similar information for the state prison population. The dashboard shows Black people make up 12% of the state’s overall population but 44% of the population in state correctional institutions, while white people make up 74% of the state population and 45% of the state prison population. While dashboards themselves don’t reduce disparities, they help create a clearer understanding of them.

4. Sentencing

Racial and ethnic disparities can also be seen in the sentencing of individuals following a criminal conviction. The use of sentencing enhancements and federal drug sentencing both provide examples of the disparities in sentencing.

Sentencing enhancements in California  have been found  to be applied disproportionately to people of color and individuals with mental illness according to the state’s  Committee on Revision of the Penal Code . More than 92% of the people sentenced for a gang enhancement in the state, for instance, are Black or Hispanic. The state has more than 150 different sentence enhancements and more than 80% of people incarcerated in the state are subject to a sentence enhancement.

In response to recommendations from the committee,  AB 333  was enacted in 2021 to modify the state’s gang enhancement statutes by reducing the list of crimes under which use of the current charge alone creates proof of a “pattern” of criminal gang activity and separates gang allegations from underlying charges at trial.

Impact Statements and Legislative Task Forces

Racial impact statements and data.

Legislatures are currently taking many steps to increase their understanding of racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. In some states, this has taken the form of racial and ethnic impact statements or corrections impact statements.

At least 18 states require  corrections impact statements  for legislation that would make changes to criminal offenses and penalties. These look at the fiscal impact of policy changes on correctional populations and criminal justice resources. A few states have required the inclusion of information on the impacts of policy changes on certain racial and ethnic groups.

Colorado has taken this approach. The state enacted  legislation in 2013  (SB 229) requiring corrections fiscal notes to include information on gender and minority data. In 2019, the state passed  legislation  (HB 1184) requiring the staff of the legislative council to prepare demographic notes for certain bills. These notes use “available data to outline the potential effects of a legislative measure on disparities within the state, including a statement of whether the measure is likely to increase or decrease disparities to the extent the data is available.”

Other states with laws requiring racial and ethnic impact statements include  Connecticut ,  Iowa ,  Maine ,  New Hampshire ,  New Jersey ,  Oregon  and  Virginia . Additionally, Florida  announced  a  partnership  in July 2019 “between the Florida Senate and Florida State University’s College of Criminology & Criminal Justice to analyze racial and ethnic impacts of proposed legislation.”  Minnesota’s Sentencing Commission has compiled racial impact statements for the legislature since 2006, though this is not required in law.

Legislative Studies and Task Forces

States are also taking a closer look at racial disparities within criminal justice systems by creating legislative studies or judicial task forces. These bodies examined disproportionalities in the criminal justice system, investigated possible causes and recommended solutions.

In 2018, Vermont  legislatively established  the state’s  Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel . The panel submitted its  report to the General Assembly  in 2019. Part of the report recommended instituting a public complaint process with the state’s Human Rights Commission to address perceived implicit bias across all state government systems. It also recommended training first responders to identify mental health needs, educating all law enforcement officers on bias and racial disparities and adopting a community policing paradigm. Finally, the panel agreed that increased and improved data collection was important to combat racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system. The panel recommended “developing laws and rules that will require data collection that captures high-impact, high-discretion decision points that occur during the judicial processes.”

State lawmakers are well positioned to make policy changes to address the racial and ethnic disparities that research has shown are present throughout the criminal justice system. As they continue to develop a greater understanding of these disparities, state legislatures have an opportunity to make their systems fairer for all individuals who encounter the justice system, with the goal of  reducing or eliminating racial and ethnic disparities. 

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Related resources, ncsl releases new report on front-end justice: deflection and diversion.

A significant number of those who cycle through jails are individuals with serious mental illness, according to a new report from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). 

Legislator Police Academy

The Legislator Police Academy is a year-long peer-training opportunity designed to support state legislators interested in policy topics related to police accountability. This program includes two in-person meetings with additional virtual opportunities. The in-person kickoff meeting was held Oct. 6-7, 2022 in Denver, with a second in-person meeting scheduled for September 2023. Throughout the course of this year-long program participants have had opportunities to hear from NCSL experts providing background research, testimony and in state technical-assistance.

The Legislative Primer Series on Front-End Justice: Deflection and Diversion

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Criminal Justice

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In May of 2020, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked a national conversation on racism in policing. The conversation was long overdue. While Floyd’s death was a wake-up call for many, it was also the latest evidence of systemic, anti-Black racism in the United States criminal justice system.

Since the 1600s, racist stereotypes have permeated American society and shaped its criminal justice system. Some of the first organized “police forces” in the United States were slave patrols in the American South, and as policing evolved, disparities in the treatment of Black and white Americans did not.

Child's face behind prison bars

During the 1980s, the federal government’s strategy to counter illegal drug use shifted from treatment and poverty reduction programs to increased incarceration, penalties, and enforcement for drug offenders. The prison population skyrocketed over the next several decades — in 1972 there were only 200,000 people incarcerated in the United States, while there are now more than 2.2 million. The trend of mass incarceration has meant mostly Black incarceration. Black Americans currently represent one-third of the incarcerated population, even though they make up only an eighth of American adults.

Crowd of Black Americans with one man holding a sign against "paranoid police"

Today, Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and given harsher sentences than white Americans who commit the same crimes. They receive much greater police scrutiny than those who are not Black — for instance, they use drugs at the same rates as other races and ethnicities but make up nearly 1 in 3 arrests for drug use. And they suffer deadly police violence at a greater rate than non-Black Americans, as the family of George Floyd knows all too well.

Our criminal justice system’s violence and inequality toward Black Americans is fueled by a long history of racism that frames Black people as inherently dangerous criminals. Positively transforming criminal justice in the United States will require confronting this history and implementing policy based in fairness and accountability.

Sources for the information above are cited at the bottom of this page.

Explore a curated sample of Harvard research and resources related to anti-Black racism in criminal justice below.

The great decoupling: the disconnection between criminal offending and experience of arrest across two cohorts.

Contact with the criminal justice system should only occur when one commits a crime. This study reveals how police arrests are increasingly informed by race instead of criminal behavior.

Unfair by Design: The War on Drugs, Race, and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Justice System

Equality before the law is one of the fundamental guarantees citizens expect in a just and fair society. This study explains how the recent trend toward mass incarceration, which has a disproportionate impact on African Americans, undermines this claim to fairness.

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (HarvardKey Only)

The idea of Black people as innately dangerous and criminal is deeply ingrained in the United States. This book traces the history of this notion and reveals how social scientists and reformers used crime statistics to mask and excuse anti-black racism, violence, and discrimination across the nation.

Punishment without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal (HarvardKey Only)

This book examines inequality in the criminal justice system through an in-depth look at misdemeanors. It reveals a sprawling system that punishes the innocent and disproportionately targets low-income people of color.

Visualizing Police Exposure by Race, Gender, and Age in New York City

This data visualization depicts the disparities in average police stops in New York City from 2004 to 2012. It illustrates that Black men and women are more likely than their peers to be exposed to policing.

Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System

People of color are drastically overrepresented in Massachusetts state prisons. This report explores the factors that lead to persistent racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal system.

American Policing and Protest || Radcliffe Institute

The United States has a long history of police violence against people of color. In this panel, experts discuss the historical roots of policing and ways to create a fair criminal justice system.

HKS policycast logo

PolicyCast: A Historic Crossroads for Systemic Racism and Policing in America

In this podcast Harvard Kennedy School professors Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Erica Chenoweth discuss police brutality, addressing systemic racism in criminal justice, and social movements.

Citations for Section Overview

Citations for page images.

  • Interior of Strafford County Jail, New Hampshire | Unidentified Artist. Crime, Prisons: United States. New Hampshire. Dover. Strafford County Jail: New Hampshire State Charitable and Correctional Institutions: Interior - Strafford County Jail., 1902.
  • A young Black girl in a Georgia prison cell, 1963 | Young girls being held in a prison cell at the Leesburg stockade. Part of Barbara Deming Papers. Folder: Alphabetical Correspondence: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): Photographs, 1963. RLG collection level record MHVW92-A44. 
  • A New York City demonstration against discriminatory policing, 1976 | Lane, Bettye. Police and Jewish demonstration in Crown Heights , 1976. Part of Bettye Lane Photographs. Folder: Crown Heights demonstration. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute PC32-136-R8/f12.

Racism in U.S. Criminal Justice System Essay

Introduction, racism in u.s. criminal justice system, clinton and incarnation, race discrimination in courts, recommendation, works cited.

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In ensuring that people interact and live in harmony there are rules and regulations that are usually stipulated. This is usually the case for all countries around the world.

The police are the ones who are mostly entitled to arrest the offenders before taking them to courts. In most countries, parliament is the ones mandated to formulate the laws. The laws are usually approved by the president of a country. Once one has been arrested by the police and taken to court, he or she can be released on bond or remanded before their case is over depending on the type of crime they have committed.

In administering their duties, the courts are supposed not to discriminate people according to their race, religion or economic wellbeing. This is not usually the case and discrimination is usually evident in many cases. This paper seeks to examine racism and racial disparity in the criminal justice system with special reference to the United States of America justice system.

Racism, which has been persistent in the United States of America, dates from the time of slavery. African American and Native Americans among others were highly discriminated against by the whites (Love, 2004). Racism has been found to be evident in all aspects from schooling to the administering of justice by the courts.

There has been continuous fight against racism in the US but it has not yet been totally eradicated. This is mainly because it is deep rooted in the administration structure and thus requires total cooperation from all parties involved in the success of its eradication (Cronkhite, 2007). The election of Obama as the US president irrespective of his roots in Africa is a good indicator of the good progress achieved so far although much more has to be done.

A country administration is mainly mandated in maintain law and order in all aspects of human interaction. In the United States of America, Clinton was the only president who passed very strict law on drug trade. These laws led to the arrest of more people who were charged at courts and imprisoned.

During his term, more tough penalties were formulated and more prisons constructed. This led to more African American being on the increase in comparison the whites. This raised query on the possible cause of the difference despite them being the minority in population.

The treatment given to blacks in the United States is different from that offered to the whites. This is evident in the administering of justice. Despite the small number of African American in comparison to the whites in the United States, the number of blacks imprisoned is very high.

It is said that the number of blacks and white men participating in drug trade is almost equal. The number of blacks arrested and charged for drugs is higher than that of the whites raising questions about the way justice is administered in courts. In courts, the blacks and Latinos usually do not get fair trial. The drug policy in US is biased so that it does not favor small groups of people such as the blacks and Latinos.

The problem of racism gets its roots from the policy makers whose minds are filled with the notion that the minority are the ones who usually commit crimes. This has brought failure in the fight against drugs. To ensure that justice prevails, there must be appropriate changes in the judicial system. The provision of proper education on drugs could give positive results in drug fight. Fair award of punishment should be done irrespective of one’s skin color or financial status.

In the recent years the number of people in jails or undergoing correction measures has been increasing. Out of this large number, the blacks form the majority despite them forming the minority in the population. There have been questions on how this can be a possibility which has led to a general feeling that double standards are being applied on some races.

In the courts, the suspects are supposed to be well informed about their rights. The availability of public defenders is found to be mainly influenced by race with the African American and the Latinos being discriminated. According to Gerhard Falk (2004):

The bureau of justice statistics reported in 2008 that in 2007 there were 4618 black males sentenced to prison for violent crimes for every 100,000 black male citizens. This number compares to 1,747 Hispanic males and 773 Euro-American males per 100,000 in the population. Since the African American population is only 13 percent of all Americans and the Hispanic population is just 12 percent of all Americans, there is indeed a great overrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics in our prisons. (Falk 2)

The issue of racism in the US criminal justice system is evident in all its levels. This stems down from the judges offering at the courts to the way the police interact with the citizen (Young, Greene and Gabbidon 153). It has been shown that the police interact with the whites better than with the blacks.

This is evident through the large number of blacks and Latinos being stopped and frisked in comparison to the whites. Over the years it has been observed that the probability of a black man being stopped and frisked is much higher than that of the white. In all these cases, the male is usually at higher chances of being harassed by the police than the females.

The judges depend on the law in administering justice. In courts, there are groups of people who are usually mandated by the court to argue a case from facts. In the US, there has been discrimination in the administration of jury services to the African Americans. This indicates a big failure in the judicial system in administering justice to all.

According to the law, any person is entitled to undergo a trial before they are sentenced by the court. A large number of African Americans usually do not get tried in accordance with the constitution in fear of being given heavier penalties on the crimes committed.

Generally speaking it is possible that most of the colored and black people get involved in committing crimes due to their financials status. Most of them might not have some means of livelihood and therefore as a means of sustaining themselves they resort to criminal and criminal related activities. The government should find a solution to empower these people instead of passing strict laws on drugs. By empowering this population, the problem of drug trafficking would have been solved automatically.

The racial discrimination in the US is observed as a way of social control. The issue of overlooking the African American and the Latinos as criminals has been used as a great weapon in the discrimination. This could be viewed as an internal war on the marginalized. The main reason behind all these is dominance by the whites in almost all the organs of justice.

The best way of overcoming this problem is through intensive revolution of values. This thus requires looking into the root cause of the problem and finding the best way to handle the situation. Increasing the number of prisoners in our jail does not ensure our security but a better approach should be undertaken.

Cronkhite, Clyde. Criminal justice administration: strategies for the 21st century . Massachusetts: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2007. Print.

Falk, Gerhard. The American criminal justice system: how it works, how it doesn’t, and how to fix it. California: ABC-CLIO, 2010. Print.

Love, Eric. Race over empire: racism and U.S. imperialism, 1865-1900 . North Carolina: UNC Press Books, 2004. Print.

Young, Vercetta., Greene, Helen and Gabbidon, Shaun. African American classics in criminology & criminal justice . California: SAGE, 2002. Print.

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IvyPanda. (2019, September 15). Racism in U.S. Criminal Justice System.

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  • Criminal Justice , Justice , Racism , Racism In America

How it works

  • 1 Introduction
  • 2.1 Methods
  • 3 Anticipated Results and Discussion
  • 4 Conclusion


The primary purpose of this report is to explore racism issues in the United States justice system and addressing the solutions to the problem affecting the judicial society. Racism entails social practices that give merits explicitly solely to members of certain racial groups. Racism is attributed to three main aspects such as; personal predisposition, ideologies, and cultural racism, which promotes policies and practices that deepen racial discrimination. Institutional racism is also rife in the US justice system. This entails issues surrounding informal interaction between minority citizens and law enforcement officers. Interactions between the two groups can occur during stopping and questioning citizens, which can involve making an arrest.

Review of the literature

According to Joe R. Feagin’s: ‘Latinos Facing Racism: Discrimination, Resistance and Endurance,’ (2015), Mexicans or Latinos, in general, have also been heavily associated with the contentious issue of immigration. Stereotypes created out of racism have depicted the Latino community in bad light. They are viewed as sly, lazy and kleptomaniac guys. On many occasions, law enforcement officers have collaborated with relevant authorities to hassle the Latino community.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the Latino population in the United States is divergent regarding financial background, privileges, and education background. Therefore, in real life, the issues afflicting the wide Latino immigrants differs significantly. For example, Puerto Ricans are immigrants with least the most significant economic shortcomings. On the other hand, Cuban immigrants have a better educational background and far much better economic fortunes of the group. Nevertheless, the United States judicial system views all the Latino immigrants as well as other black groups as virtually identical.

The people of Alaska and American Indians are the critical groups considered as the indigenous inhabitants of the United States when the history of contact of these groups of communities with the Anglo Americans, injustices such as oppression and land dispossession are noted. Also, these native groups suffer from unbalanced representation in the United States criminal justice system. The trend makes it difficult for the groups to virtual fight for their interest — the states’ incarceration and arrest data concerning these minority groups in scanty and usually biased. This misrepresentation makes the root cause of discrimination whereby the criminal justice system subjects them to socio-economic and educational stereotypes.

When it comes to criminal victimization, African Americans seem to be the most vulnerable to be inappropriately victimized to have committed a violent and heinous crime. When compared to a white American, blacks are at a higher likelihood to be murdered (Reifer, 2017). In addition to that, they are also twice likely to be sexually assaulted including rape and to be robbed.

Despite only making up to 13% of the entire United States population, statistics surprisingly indicate that 48% murder arrests, 54% of robbery incidents, 32% of rape and 32% of assault charges were accounted by the black population (Reifer, 2017). Recent statistics also point out the black community as being 45% of all the people currently incarcerated in state and federal correctional facilities and prisons. The minority American Indians also represent a significant percentage of the people held in state and federal prisons.

According to Joe & Jose, (2018), racial prejudice was observed in the criminal justice system of the United States. Law enforcement officers were noted to treat minorities with racial bias and at smoothly applies excessive force as compared to the dominant groups. Also, according to the review of radio transmission, some officers were guilty of using racial remarks regarding suspects or their possessions such as cars. Discriminatory treatment was also observed in the minority-dominated neighborhoods. African Americans and Latino groups were detained, verbally harassed and subjected to humiliating tactics. In addition to that, officers from the minority groups were also treated discriminately and exposed to racial comments and offensive slurs.

In a different commission of inquiry in the state of New York, shocking revelations were made. It was established that there existed virtually two different court systems to serve majority of whites and the other for the poor black population. Therefore, unequal justice was dispensed basing on the race. Court cases for blacks happened in deplorable court precincts were as short as five minutes and had an only white jury. The conclusion was that minority group offenders were more likely to be given longer sentences while white offenders were treated with leniency. Plea bargain, the type, and length of the sentence were strictly administered based on the race of the accused. Various decision-making points should be undertaken by the criminal justice system to correct this vice.

Various initiatives should be developed with the aim of reducing racism in the US criminal system. Some of the methods to achieve these should include:

  • The instant reprimand and openly speaking about injustice practice by the public will compel policymakers to pull along.
  • The officers should account for deliberate misconduct such as innocent prosecution, destruction of evidence and fabrication of charges.
  • Advocating for implementation of less severe sentences. Harsh sentences for non-violent felonies are unnecessary and punitive to the poor and blacks.
  • Support for alternative programs to reduce biased arrest against the poor blacks.
  • Embracing community policing since police officers accurately will know the criminal status of whom they serve.
  • The improvisation of accountability and sound policies in prisons.
  • Abolishing the death sentence.

Anticipated Results and Discussion

Based on the above recommendations, with proper implementation, various results can be achieved and go a long way in bringing equality and fairness in the criminal justice system.

Openly speaking about injustice will help advocate for reforms in the judicial system. The public should take a collective stand so that the system can be more and fair and have a more in-depth focus on the safety of the whole public rather than someone’s race (Devon, 2015). Holding the law enforcement officers responsible will make them more accountable and treat all races fairly.

Laws should be enacted to reduce the severity of harsh sentences. In most cases, the black population is given very harsh sentencing out of non-violent offenses. Bills such as the ‘Smarter Sentencing Act,’ should be supported to mitigate the disparity.

Implementing alternative programs instead of arrest should be applied to reduce too many arrests and incarceration. These initiatives will provide alternatives to justice systems since most arrests are skewed against minority groups.

Community policing programs are beneficial since officers within the neighborhood make very informed decisions. For example, the Camden County police in New Jersey has seen a reduction in homicide cases in the city.

From the statistics, the majority of the people convicted are of the black race. Many of the prisoners suffer violent attack by wardens and sexually assaulted. When they finish their term, they become traumatized, hopeless and maladjusted in the society. (James, 2018) Prisons should be secured, and also, any violence or misconduct should be the responsibility of prison administrators.

The capital punishment is obsolete, racist and very costly to carry out. It’s often observed to target the poor blacks, therefore, should be done away with entirely.

Therefore, a large group of scholars opines that discrimination is still present in the society and is deeply anchored in prejudged socio-cultural attitude toward the vulnerable ethnicities and groups. This can usually manifest itself in complex and sophisticated ways and avenues that are difficult to decode even with practical strategies of research. Therefore, the criminal justice system has an uphill task of cleaning the public perception that has associated it with the vice since the times of slavery in the United States.

Despite divergent research opinion, the entire population of minority groups has a permanent and conservative belief linking their injustice and discrimination to the criminal justice system of the United States. However, the penal judicial system can still counter the perception and make up for the undoing. First of all, they should ensure that law enforcers and the legal system acts honorably and endeavor to do away with any form of discrimination, bias, and racial segregation from their decision making from the top organs downwards.

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Racism and the U.S. Criminal Justice System. (2020, Apr 19). Retrieved from

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Why racism still persists in the criminal justice system – essay sample, example.

Noah Harris

The problem of racism 

Racism has been a persistent problem in the criminal justice system for decades. Despite the many advancements made in society, the criminal justice system remains deeply flawed and has been accused of perpetuating racism. There are several reasons why racism still persists in the criminal justice system, including systemic biases, institutionalized racism, and the prevalence of racial profiling.

One of the main reasons why racism persists in the criminal justice system is the existence of systemic biases. These biases can be seen in the way that police officers, judges, and other officials interact with minorities. For example, studies have shown that police officers are more likely to use force against minorities than against white individuals. This suggests that systemic biases exist within the police force that leads to discrimination against minorities.

Another reason why racism persists in the criminal justice system is the institutionalization of racism. The criminal justice system is designed to punish those who break the law, but it is also designed to protect the interests of those in power. This means that the system is inherently biased against minorities, who are often seen as a threat to the status quo. As a result, minorities are more likely to be arrested, charged, and convicted of crimes than their white counterparts.

Racial profiling is another contributing factor to the persistence of racism in the criminal justice system. Racial profiling is the practice of targeting individuals based on their race or ethnicity, rather than their behavior or actions. This practice is often used by law enforcement officials to identify potential suspects, but it can also lead to discrimination against minorities. For example, studies have shown that black individuals are more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers than white individuals, even when no evidence of wrongdoing exists.

In conclusion, racism persists in the criminal justice system for several reasons, including systemic biases, institutionalized racism, and the prevalence of racial profiling. These factors contribute to a system that is deeply flawed and often unfair to minorities. Until these issues are addressed, it will be difficult to create a criminal justice system that is truly just and equitable for all. It is time for society to take a closer look at these issues and work towards creating a more just and equitable system for all.Q: What is racism in the criminal justice system?

A: Racism in the criminal justice system refers to the discrimination and bias that people of color face in the justice system. It includes racial profiling, disproportionate sentencing, and police brutality, among other things.

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Why does racism still persist in the criminal justice system?

Racism in the criminal justice system persists due to a variety of reasons, including systemic biases and prejudices, lack of diversity in law enforcement and the justice system, and a history of discriminatory policies and practices.

How does racism affect people of color in the criminal justice system?

Racism affects people of color in the criminal justice system by leading to higher rates of arrest, conviction, and sentencing, as well as more severe punishment compared to white people. It also contributes to police brutality and excessive use of force.

What can be done to address racism in the criminal justice system?

Addressing racism in the criminal justice system requires systemic change and a multi-faceted approach. This includes diversifying law enforcement and the justice system, implementing anti-bias training, reforming sentencing laws, and investing in community policing and alternatives to incarceration.

How does racism in the criminal justice system impact society as a whole?

Racism in the criminal justice system contributes to a sense of injustice and distrust in the system, particularly among communities of color. It also perpetuates systemic racism and contributes to wider societal issues such as poverty, inequality, and lack of social mobility.

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Over 100 Connecticut State Troopers Accused of Faking Traffic Stops

Auditors found tens of thousands of apparently falsified traffic stop records, many of white drivers. They suspect the officers were trying to appear more productive.

Three men, two in state police uniforms and a third in a gray suit, sit before microphones in a hearing room at the state Capitol in Hartford, Conn.

By Amelia Nierenberg

On an unseasonably warm morning in February 2017, a 75-year-old white motorist was making his way north on Interstate 95 in Westbrook, Conn., when he was pulled over by a state trooper and charged with a traffic violation.

That is, at least, according to a traffic stop report filed by the officer. But no ticket appears to have been issued.

In fact, there may not have been any stop. The driver may not even exist.

State officials believe that the trooper was among more than 100 Connecticut state police officers who may have filed false reports of traffic stops in recent years, possibly to boost the internal statistics used to measure their performance.

A recent audit described “a pattern of record manipulation” and said there was a “high likelihood” that at least 25,966 recorded stops between 2014 and 2021 were false and that as many as 58,553 may have been, at minimum, inaccurate.

“What was the motivation here, really?” asked Ken Barone, a co-author of the audit. Most likely, he said, “the motivation here was to appear productive.”

The idea that Connecticut’s state police officers may have conducted a yearslong scheme of systematic deceit has shocked the public, embarrassed the state’s law enforcement community and enraged its political leadership at a time of national conversations about police accountability.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating, state officials said. Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has launched a separate inquiry .

“The trust and the confidence in Connecticut state police is clearly shaken by this,” said State Representative Steve Stafstrom, a Democrat and the co-chairman of the state legislature’s judiciary committee.

The ticket reports under scrutiny may have also irrevocably tainted the racial data that the state collects on traffic stops. That is because the motorists who were purportedly stopped were disproportionately white, said Mr. Barone, who is the manager of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project , which seeks to identify and address racial and ethnic disparities in traffic enforcement.

The auditors compiled their research by comparing two sets of data: court records of real tickets issued to real people and internal data from the state police.

“Every time Trooper A said they stopped a car and issued a ticket, I should be able to find said ticket in the court system,” Mr. Barone said.

But the numbers did not add up. Mr. Barone and his team kept finding reported tickets that had no match in the court system — no matter how they tried to account for typos or other mistakes. He said they had used an “extremely conservative” approach.

“The philosophy that we had was: ‘When in doubt, give them credit,’” he said.

But Mr. Barone said he saw almost no way that troopers could have made some of the stops they reported.

In one case, a trooper logged five registration violations over a 30-minute period. Another trooper reported issuing five speeding tickets in 22 minutes. Another reported three speeding tickets in 14 minutes. Still another claimed to have issued three wrong-lane tickets, in a work zone, in nine minutes.

Mr. Barone said that members of the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project were inspired to begin the audit last summer after Hearst Connecticut Media reported that four troopers were found to have falsified records in 2018. They strongly suspected a much broader pattern, he said.

Now the auditors, who included researchers from the University of Connecticut and Northeastern University, say they believe the problem is widespread.

Their report, released earlier this summer, found 130 former and current officers who had filed suspicious reports. James C. Rovella, the head of the state’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, told lawmakers in July that 68 of those officers were still active . He did not respond to a request for comment.

Some troopers have been cleared of wrongdoing in the weeks since the audit was released.

Andrew Matthews, the general counsel and executive director of the state police union, put that number at 27 ; Mr. Barone said the auditors had cleared only 20, because of duplicate badge numbers. The state police declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

Experts in criminal justice say the ticket scandal has revealed a lack of accountability within the state police.

“If we can’t trust them for traffic tickets, how are we going to trust them for cases like sexual assault, or murder?” said Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, a sociologist at Brown University who studies policing and prosecutors.

“The state troopers sort of view themselves as better than local police officers,” said Mike Lawlor, a criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven, who is also a member of the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council , which certifies officers. “But also, over time, they’ve had a culture where there was essentially no real oversight of them.”

The state police union has sued to block the release of the names of the troopers under suspicion until the investigations conclude. Mr. Matthews said they are entitled to due process — and that revealing their identities could put them in danger.

He also cast doubt on the audit’s methodology: He said auditors had not done enough research to understand how the ticket reporting system works.

Although some state troopers had cruisers equipped with electronic ticket recording systems during the period of the audit, others had to write out tickets by hand. Mr. Matthews said that auditors had not appropriately checked electronic court records against the carbon copies of handwritten tickets on file with the state police.

“Why is everyone in such a rush to tarnish the good names of people that did nothing wrong?” he asked.

Mr. Matthews, a former state trooper, was among those whose reports were flagged. He denied any wrongdoing and said one of his cruisers did not have an electronic recording system.

“I did my job with the utmost integrity,” he said.

Instead of widespread dishonesty, Mr. Matthews suggested that there could have been data entry issues.

Maybe, he said, some of the stops resulted in infractions more serious than a ticket, and an officer misreported them as tickets. Perhaps a trooper issued a warning, instead of a ticket, but a dispatcher entered it incorrectly.

Advocates and lawyers said that they need accurate traffic stop data in part to assess whether officers are unfairly targeting Black and Hispanic drivers.

Connecticut outlawed racial profiling of drivers in 1999. The Racial Profiling Prohibition Project has been collecting and analyzing statewide data since 2013.

But the state troopers’ data is now “obsolete,” said Claudine Constant, the public policy and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

In fact, the audit found that the reports under suspicion were almost 10 percentage points more likely than verified reports to involve white drivers, and about 4.5 percentage points less likely to involve Black or Hispanic drivers.

“This audit reveals a pretty breathtaking disrespect for the states’ racial prohibition law,” Ms. Constant said. “And even worse, the goal of attempting to reduce traffic stops that might be grounded in racism.”

Now, officials are trying to determine whether there was systematic fraud — and, if so, how high up it went.

“If they misused the system intentionally, the question that stems from that is: ‘Why was nobody arrested?’” said State Representative Craig Fishbein, a Republican who is the ranking House member of the legislature’s judiciary committee.

The scandal may also have repercussions across the justice system.

Already, the lawyer for a man accused of murder is arguing that he should be told whether the state police officers involved in the case were flagged in the audit — which would undermine their credibility. Mr. Lawlor, the criminal justice professor, said he expected other defense attorneys across the state to make similar arguments — until the names of troopers under investigation are released.

Amelia Nierenberg writes the Asia Pacific Morning Briefing for The Times. More about Amelia Nierenberg



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    Although saying the criminal justice system is racist is a controversial statement, there is evidence and statistics that prove it to be true. Research and evidence validate the issue of racism to be undeniable. Equality and justice are out of reach with the racism that takes place in our criminal. 1512 Words. 7 Pages.

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    If you are looking for ways to connect issues related to the racism pandemic and shootings of unarmed black men and women into your class, the 2016 TOPSS essay contest question focused on racial bias in the criminal justice system. The full competition question is posted below, for you to see/use/adapt as needed in your class next fall.

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  24. Over 100 Connecticut State Police Officers Accused of Falsifying

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