Our legal system has a serious problem with racism, and I say that as an attorney and a Black man. As discussed below, this is not just some idea of mine; the history, statistics, and peer-reviewed studies make this conclusion sadly inescapable.
Starting with my own personal experiences as an attorney who handles criminal defense work in Illinois and Iowa, I see a difference in how my Black or Brown clients are treated by the court system, compared to how my White clients are treated. Prosecutors often charge Black/Brown defendants with more serious crimes than White defendants, even when the conduct is identical. Judges will set higher bond amounts for Black/Brown defendants, even on identical charges. Racist crime lab employees are entrusted to analyze DNA and give conclusions that are relied upon by the prosecutor and court. Prosecutors offer less favorable plea deals to Black/Brown defendants than White defendants for similar conduct. Prosecutors strike Black/Brown jurors, leaving only White jurors to decide guilt or innocence. Juries show a bias in favor of White witnesses and defendants, and a bias against Black/Brown witnesses and defendants. Black/Brown juvenile defendants are transferred to adult court while similarly situated White juvenile defendants remain in juvenile court. Judges impose harsher sentences on Black/Brown defendants, even when race is the only difference between defendants. Probation and parole officers are more likely to try and revoke the probation or parole of Black/Brown people than of White people for similar conduct. I personally see all of that, and know that racism is alive and well in our criminal justice system.
Study after study supports what I have seen:
A study found that Blacks 18 to 29 years-old pay more to get out of jail than Whites. Blacks are held in jail at rate that’s almost five times greater than Whites, and it is harder for jailed defendants to plan an effective defense. Fifty percent of defendants who committed no crimes at all took guilty pleas to avoid convictions and maximum penalties. http://sacobserver.com/2012/09/blacks-pay-more-to-get-out-of-jail-on-bail/
A 2013 study found that after adjusting for numerous other variables, federal prosecutors were almost twice as likely to bring charges carrying mandatory minimums against black defendants as against white defendants accused of similar crimes. https://www.yalelawjournal.org/article/mandatory-sentencing-and-racial-disparity-assessing-the-role-of-prosecutors-and-the-effects-of-booker
A 2017 report by Carlos Berdejo at the University of Loyola Law School found that White defendants were 25 percent more likely than their Black counterparts to have criminal charges dropped or reduced to less serious crimes. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3036726
When Harris County, Tex., saw a flaw in how drug testing was conducted at its crime lab, officials went back and exonerated dozens of people who had been wrongly convicted for possession — most pleaded guilty, despite their innocence. This is because prosecutors often promise harsher sentences or more charges for defendants who take a case to trial. Black people comprise 20 percent of the Harris County population but made up 62 percent of the wrongful drug convictions. https://www.texastribune.org/2017/03/07/report/
Between 2003 and 2012, prosecutors in Caddo Parish, La. — one of the most aggressive death penalty counties in the country — struck 46 percent of prospective black jurors with preemptory challenges, vs. 15 percent of nonblacks. https://blackstrikes.com/resources/Blackstrikes_Caddo_Parish_August_2015.pdf
In a 2010 study, “mock jurors” were given the same evidence from a fictional robbery case but then shown alternate security camera footage depicting either a light-skinned or dark-skinned suspect. Jurors were more likely to evaluate ambiguous, race-neutral evidence against the dark-skinned suspect as incriminating and more likely to find the dark-skinned suspect guilty. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1601615
While black youths make up 14 percent of the youth population, a 2018 study found that they make up 53 percent of minors transferred to adult court for offenses against persons, despite the fact that white and black youths make up nearly an equal percentage of youth charged with such offenses. http://cfyj.org/images/pdf/Social_Justice_Brief_Youth_Transfers.Revised_copy_09-18-2018.pdf
A 2011 summary of the research on race and plea bargaining published by the Bureau of Justice Assistance concluded that “the majority of research on race and sentencing outcomes shows that blacks are less likely than whites to receive reduced pleas,” that “studies that assess the effects of race find that blacks are less likely to receive a reduced charge compared with whites,” and that “studies have generally found a relationship between race and whether or not a defendant receives a reduced charge.” https://bja.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh186/files/media/document/PleaBargainingResearchSummary.pdf
A 2007 Harvard study found sentencing discrepancies among black people, depending on the darkness of their skin. The study looked at 67,000 first-time felons in Georgia from 1995 to 2002. The average sentence for white men was 2,689 days. The average for black men was 378 days longer. But light-skinned blacks received sentences of about three and a half months longer than whites. Medium-skinned blacks received a sentence of about a year longer. Dark-skinned blacks received sentences of a year and a half longer. https://scholar.harvard.edu/jlhochschild/publications/skin-color-paradox-and-american-racial-order
A 2015 study of first-time felons found that while black men overall received sentences of 270 days longer than white men for similar crimes, the discrepancy between whites and dark-skinned blacks was 400 days. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jels.12077
The United States Sentencing Commission is an official part of the federal judicial branch. It produces regular reports about the criminal justice system at the federal level. The most recent report found that Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders. Black male offenders received sentences on average 19.1 percent longer than similarly situated White male offenders during the Post-Report period (fiscal years 2012-2016), as they had for the prior four periods studied. Violence in an offender’s criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing. https://www.ussc.gov/research/research-reports/demographic-differences-sentencing
For further reading, the following links give detailed information from investigative journalists, provide citations to peer-reviewed studies, and thoroughly demonstrate that racism is alive and well in our courts:
Finally, please note that this article is intended to address the problems of racism in the court system. For a discussion of the racism in policing, please see this article: https://www.learnaboutguns.com/2020/06/17/police-use-of-force-depends-upon-the-race-of-the-suspect/