March 25, 2013
The Minority Inmate Population: A Look at Racial Bias in our Judicial System
In 2012 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that minorities make up 36% of the general population and 57% of the prison population. Recent studies have shown that the attractiveness, race, and social status of the defendant, the way a jury is selected, and the race of the presiding judge all play a role in the sentencing of minority defendants. The likelihood that a minority defendant is poor and therefore does not have access to quality legal council also plays a role in the disparity of minority inmate population. It is not clear whether or not higher arrest rates among the minority population are due to an actual higher prevalence of crime, or if racial profiling and a higher rate of conviction cause the higher arrest rates. What is clear is that the way in which our judicial system operates is at least partially responsible for the disparity of minority inmate population. In order to counteract the effects of bias, our judicial system should make it a goal to enact laws that make sensitivity training mandatory for law enforcement officials and make racial profiling illegal, increase the representation of minorities as judges, and make quality legal representation more accessible to the disenfranchised.
Members of minority groups are more likely to be sentenced to prison as opposed to alternative forms of punishment such as probation or house arrest. Uneducated males in particular are more likely to be given harsher sentences. In fact being associated with a minority group can account for a sentence that is one to seven months longer than what white males receive for similar crimes (Kamalu, Coulson-Clark, Kamalu, 2010 ). African American males are found to be much more likely than any other group to be arrested and given sentences that are disproportionate to their Latino or white counterparts. The arrest rate of African American males is 8.68% compared to 4.91% of white males. This is due in part to the fact that although African American males make up a small part of the overall population they are much more likely to be subject to traffic stops and subsequent searches. Of the .7% of vehicles searched by police, 53% of those were operated by African American males as opposed to 21% of white males and 24% of Hispanic males (Kamalu, Coulson-Clark, Kamalu, 2010). These troubling statistics bring to light a problem with our police force. Can the higher rate of arrests of minorities be counteracted with an agenda that attempts to increase the representation of minorities as police officers? A study conducted by David Eitle, Lisa Stolzenberg, and Stewart D’Alesio says no (Eitle, Stolzenberg, D’Alessio, 2005). Their study showed that there was not a significant difference between minority and non minority arrests in jurisdictions where there was a less disproportionate ratio of minority to non minority police officers. What then, if anything, can be done to address the issue of racial profiling? Sensitivity training for law enforcement officials seems to have had a positive effect on racial profiling in areas where it has been adopted. Sensitivity training includes “training on civil rights, human relations, racial and ethnic sensitivity and non-discriminatory enforcement of the law” (N/A, 2003). Some states including New Jersey and Illinois have enacted laws against racial profiling. These laws make it a crime for police officers to approach a person simply because of their race. The laws carry maximum sentences of up to five years in prison. There has been very little research on the effects of racial profiling laws on the arrest rates of minorities, and therefore should be further studied in order to provide statistics and examples as incentives for other states to adopt similar laws. Only 4.1% of state trial judges are African American, and even in states with a high percentage of African American