The criminal justice system in the United States is not post-racial. Across the country, African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities are overrepresented at each stage in the adjudication process.
It is not uncommon for some to dismiss these disparities with oversimplified explanations, such as “Minorities just commit a disproportionate amount of crimes,” or “The cops, prosecutors, and judges are racist and treat minorities more harshly.” Neither of these sentiments reflects the complexity of the problem of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
While minorities have a higher rate of criminal activity in some crime categories, this does not explain why minority defendants who commit the same crimes and have the same criminal history as white defendants are more likely to be denied pretrial release and are sentenced more harshly. Likewise, while there are some bad actors in the criminal justice system whose professional judgment is infected by racial bias, “race neutral” laws that are fairly and evenly enforced across all racial groups can still have a disparate impact on minority defendants.
This article explores some of the legal barriers that prevent defendants from presenting evidence of racial disparities as a means of seeking relief from government action in criminal cases and discusses the innovative work of the Racial Justice Improvement Project, an ABA Criminal Justice Section initiative designed to reform policies and practices that produce racial disparities in local criminal justice systems.
To read this article by The Sentencing Project’s board member Cynthia Jones, download the PDF below.