Ten Ways Criminal Justice Is One Of The Great Civil Rights Crises Of Our Time

The last few months have issued several potent reminders that racism still pervades our criminal justice system, as even some prominent and powerful American black leaders publicly professed that they had to warn their young sons about police profiling. Supporting these anecdotes is a U.S. record of racially skewed criminal justice policies that moved academic Michelle Alexander to declare in her seminal 2010 book that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, here are some of the many reasons criminal justice is in fact one of the great civil rights crises of our time:

1. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. More than 60 percent of people in prison now are racial or ethnic minorities, according to the Sentencing Project. These minorities are part of a total prison population that eclipses that of any other nation in the world. At the federal level, more than half of these individuals are locked up for nonviolent drug or immigration offenses.

2. Black men born in the United States in 2001 have a one in three chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lifetime, according to Department of Justice statistics. An even greater number will have a criminal record, and face the host of collateral consequences that emanate from a criminal record. As Alexander wrote, “An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.” One study suggested felon voting restrictions disenfranchise more minorities than voter ID laws.

3. The New York Police Department city made more stops of young black men in 2011 than there are young black men in the city, as part of its aggressive stop-and-frisk program that a federal judge deemed racial profiling earlier this month. In the years since, the NYPD has decreased the number of stops, but the disproportionate impact on blacks and Hispanics remains dramatic. A chart from the New York Public Advocate illustrates the disparity:


National studies have found that blacks and Hispanics are approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.

4. Black men receive sentences 20 percent longer than white male defendants who are similarly situated, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found earlier this year. An earlier Pennsylvania study found that young white defendants were 38 percent less likely to be sentenced to prison than young black men for similar crimes.

5. Blacks are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, even though they use the drug at similar rates, according to an analysis of federal data by the American Civil Liberties Union published earlier this year. In 2002, four out of every five drug prisoners in the United States were African American or Hispanic, even though they together only represent 22 percent of drug user.

6. Racist drug sentencing disparities remain embedded in our statutes. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the vast disparity in mandatory minimum and recommended sentences for crack cocaine, which is more common among African Americans, and power cocaine, much more prevalent among whites. What was a 100-to-1 disparity became 18-to-1 in a compromise measure. Already, this is affecting the sentencing of every offender going forward, and has saved 16,000 prison years for those who were able to receive new, reduced sentences retroactively. But the Fair Sentencing Act still does not apply retroactively to those sentenced to mandatory minimum sentences, in spite of one court opinion suggesting it should, and the 18-to-1 disparity continues to perpetuate disproportionate sentencing of blacks.

7. Race determines who is sentenced to death. The vast majority of executions for interracial murders since 1976 have involved crimes with a black defendant and a white victim. A 1990 GAO study found that race was a factor in the death sentence in 82 percent of cases. And this jibes with statistics in states with the death penalty. In Alabama, just six percent of murders involve black defendants and white victims, but 60 percent of black death row inmates were convicted of killing a white person. In Colorado, African Americans make up four percent of the population and 100 percent of the death row. And in Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97 percent higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black.


8. In states with Stand Your Ground laws, whites who kill blacks are far more likely to have their killings deemed “justified” than blacks who kill blacks or whites. Per this chart from PBS:

9. Black youth are disproportionately suspended, expelled, and arrested by harsh school policies that criminalize student discipline. This school-to-prison pipeline funnels kids out of school and into the criminal justice system. By one recent estimate, blacks are three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. And black youth who are referred to juvenile court are much more likely to be detained, referred to adult court or end up in adult prison than their white counterparts. Recent studies suggest that initial exposure to police and the criminal justice system makes individuals more likely to commit crimes later.

10. One in four young black men recalled unfair treatment by police within the last 30 days, in a recent Gallup poll. While this data relies on self-reporting, it suggests that the number of minorities having adverse interactions with the police is even higher than those who end up subject to arrest or incarceration.