Disparities in the U. S. Criminal Justice System, Research Paper Example


During the last several decades, it has become apparent that minorities involved in all aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system, including corrections, have been tremendously overrepresented. The reasons for this phenomenon are believed to include school failures, poorly developed social skills, as well as insufficient school and community support (Garfinkel, 2000.) However, in addition to these factors, the existence of institutional racism certainly plays a role in the skewed numbers. One might hypothesize that African-Americans and other minorities are arrested at a rate that is much higher than that of the white population, and that there are a variety of factors contributing to the arrest rate.

A further presumption would be that minorities who are accused of the same crimes as their white counterparts are more likely to serve time in prison and to serve longer prison terms. The significance of this phenomenon is that if this trend continues, a large proportion of the minority population in the United States will be housed in prisons, representing both a huge financial burden on the society at large as well as a social loss because of the lack of diversity in the number of productive, functioning contributors to the greater good. This paper will present a literature review of the above mentioned topics that explores the above-named hypotheses, and will concentrate on a study that was conducted in order to examine these theories.

Literature Review

In a study that focused on the experience of African-American males in the criminal justice system in Minnesota, arrests, convictions, and sentencing patterns were studied (African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System, 2001.) Data were collected regarding arrests from Minnesota police departments, information regarding sentencing and court dispositions was collected from criminal courts in the state, and length of stay in prisons or jails was obtained from detention centers in Minnesota. The major conclusion from this study indicated that despite the relatively low percentage of minorities in the Minnesota population, 5.2% (Stratus Health, 2010),  African-American males were overrepresented in the justice system from the point of traffic stops by the police and continuing to the rate of conviction, including sentences (African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System, 2001.)

Another study explored the rates of minority drug offenders in Illinois prisons compared with their numbers in the general population in that state (Dighton, 2003.) Illinois has the highest rate of black male drug offenders admitted to prisons nationally, according to a Human Rights Watch report from 2000. A research project was launched in order to understand the causes for the disproportionate imprisonment of drug offenders from minority communities, compared to that of white drug offenders. This study looked at the juvenile justice system of Cook County, Illinois, to explore the variables that are associated with minority youth who are at risk for delinquency, and the ways in which the system reinforces racial disparities at virtually every step of the process.

Another report that documented the national overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system documented this phenomenon by utilizing data regarding arrests, court processing and sentencing, new admissions and ongoing populations in prison and jails, probation and parole, capital punishment, and recidivism (Bartney, 2009.) The results establish that in the sample studied, at each level of the criminal justice system, minorities–and in particular, African-Americans–were more likely to receive worse outcomes than their equivalents in the population.

The report also found significant problems in the federal data collection system regarding the adult criminal justice system, contrasted with that of the juvenile justice system. While data for the juveniles who become involved in all levels of the court system comes from one single source, information about the adult criminal justice system is derived from a variety of sources. This information is only available via independent federal and state collection systems, all of which have their own individual sampling methods (Vuong, 2009.)

An article about the criminal justice system in the state of Colorado, which is 90% white, reports that a disproportionate amount of black men spend more time in prison, as well as being sentenced to death and remaining on death row, than their white and Latino counterparts who have committed similar crimes (Getz, 2010.) This conclusion was derived from information taken from the United States Department of Corrections, the United States Department of Justice, as well as organizations that conduct research on public policies, including the Justice Policy Institute. Racial disparities were found to exist on every level of the criminal justice system, and the use of discretion by police or judges was found to be applied preferentially as well, with stricter penalties being given to blacks and non-white Hispanics for the same drug-related crimes that white offenders committed.

In an article appearing in The Journal of African-American Males in Education, the role of school-based mental health practitioners was examined in relation to their ability to influence what they called the “school to prison pipeline” that results in the disproportionate numbers of African-American and other male students winding up in jail or prison (Darensbourg, 2010.) According to their research, African-American males are three times more likely to be incarcerated than non-African-American males. These authors noted that 52% of African-American males who drop out of high school have spent time in prison at least once before reaching age 30. Additionally, more than two thirds of African-American prison inmates dropped out of high school, providing indications that the educational system plays a significant role in the disproportionate numbers of African-American males who wind up being processed through the criminal justice system (Ibid.)

Another study that linked incarceration rates with the tendency to drop out of high school was done by Northwestern University; the study found that in Illinois, 10% of native-born high school dropouts were in jail or prison, and among that group, by a wide margin black male dropouts had the highest rate of incarceration among the three major racial/ethnic categories (Sum, 2011.) Nearly one third of 18 to 34-year-old African-American high school dropouts were in prison in 2010. In this study, the education level of the subject was directly correlated with imprisonment; as the education level rose, the rate of incarceration dropped significantly.

In the state of Texas, an ACLU study found that while African Americans make up only 11% of the population of that state, 40% of the state’s prison inmates are black (Marable, 2008.) In that state, black people are remanded into prison at about five times the rate of white people. This is only one example of the overwhelming evidence that the proportion of African-Americans in prisons across the country is mostly due to discrimination that appears at each segment of the criminal justice system. In fact, as of 2006, the national prison population was 46% white, 41% African-American, and 19% Latino, although the latter two groups’ numbers in the general population are tremendously smaller.

In addition, in spite of the fact that African-Americans statistically represent fewer than 10 percent of drug abusers, in Texas 50 percent of all prisoners incarcerated in state prisons and two-thirds of all those in jails for “drug delivery offenses” are African Americans (Ibid.). These numbers are duplicated when it comes to considering the juvenile justice system nationally: the ACLU study also found that although only 15% of the nation’s youths are African-American, African-American juveniles constitute 26% of all minors arrested by the police in the United States annually.

The hypothesis that incarceration rates in the United States are affected by race and social class is explored in a study which developed a method of predicting lifetime risk of imprisonment in a population that consisted largely of black and white men who had achieved different educational levels (Western, 2004.) This study will be discussed in detail, including its sampling method, results, and conclusions. When reviewing this research, it is helpful to apply the Ecosystem perspective because the results in virtually all of these studies confirm the principles of that framework: that individuals and families exist within communities and neighborhoods, that individuals, families, and neighborhoods exist in a cultural, economic, and political climate, and that an individual’s environment directly affects the actions, beliefs, and choices of each person.


In the above-mentioned study, an analysis was performed to estimate how the cumulative risk of incarceration increases as males grow from their teenage years until their early 30s, evaluating the risk of imprisonment at different levels of education and racial groups. The researchers hypothesized that imprisonment became disproportionately widespread among low skilled, less educated black males, creating a new feature of the American penal system and its correlations with race and class inequality (Western, 2004.) The key source of data used for this study was taken from The Survey of Inmates of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1974-1997, using descriptive statistics taken from various states’ prison populations and considering age, education, as well as race or ethnicity. The population surveyed contained 59,951 prison inmates coming from unspecified state and federal prisons, ranging in the individual’s number of prison admissions, age, education level, and ethnic/racial identity.

The study’s purpose was to calculate the cumulative risk of imprisonment, using age-specific, first-incarceration and mortality rates; those rates were calculated by using the number of people entering prison for the first time, divided by the number of people of that same age in the population at risk (Ibid.) In order to estimate the age-specific rates of incarceration, the following factors had to be taken into account: the number of people in a specific age group annually admitted to prison for the first time, the sum total of surviving inmates and ex-inmates in that age group admitted in earlier years, and a total count of prisoners in that age group. Age-specific mortality rates originated from published mortality tables. The probability of incarceration was derived from age-specific risk, which assumed that new imprisonments and deaths are distributed evenly over the age interval, taking the average incarceration as occurring midway through that time period (Ibid.)

The researchers devised a formula which took into account the impact of: the age of the prisoner when his crime was committed, race and education for the inmates studied. This was estimated by the number of first-time incarcerations, but was not directly observed. Instead, it

was calculated by taking the size of the prison population in a given year corresponding to a specific age group, and creating a fraction by comparing it with first-admissions to the prison in that same year (Ibid.)  As previously discussed, all data were collected using surveys that were administered every five years between 1974 and 1997. Because the surveys were taken at a certain point in time, clearly many inmates were not counted if, for example, a prisoner served and completed a sentence in less than five years, so that he both entered and was released from prison in between surveys.

As a result, one limitation of the research design was that the number of inmates from any age group or ethnic group was possibly under-counted (Ibid.). In addition, another limitation was that the data were completely derived from statistical information provided by different states and federal prisons, so that there was no guarantee that the data collection was uniform in each location. Finally, another limitation of the study was that there was no specific information about which state prisons were involved in the research; this leads to speculation that different areas of the country might have had different results, not in the fact that racial and ethnic disparities exist in the criminal justice system, but the degree to which they exist in, for example, states with large urban populations versus states that have more rural areas.

The protection of subjects for the experiment was not an issue during this research, because the data were compiled from statistical surveys rather than descriptive, in-person interviews or records that could have compromised the confidentiality of the inmates. The data analysis was provided by tables, as well as lengthy discussions completed by the researchers, and which reported socioeconomic, age, and racial factors taken from both state and federal prisons focusing on male inmates incarcerated during the years 1974 through 1997.


The results indicated that whereas criminal behavior was highest during the teen and young adult years, first-time imprisonments were most common for men in their late 20s, implying that younger offenders may have benefited from discretionary decisions on the part of the judges in their cases. It was found that men in their early 30s were the group most at risk to be incarcerated. In addition, age played a significant role in incarceration as well; for example, black man without felony records between the ages of 25 and 29 had a nearly 10% chance of being imprisoned by the end of the 20th century (Ibid.)  This rate of incarceration was 2.5 times higher than that of black men the same age born 20 years prior, and the probability of serving prison time for white men was only 1/5 as large.

The study also found that education level played a tremendous role in the incarceration rates, with high school dropouts being three or four times more likely to end up in prison than those who had completed high school (Ibid.) Other results that were staggering were that on the average, African-American males are eight times more likely to be in state or federal prisons than whites; in addition, by the end of the last century, 21% of black, poorly educated men were either in state or federal prisons, compared with 2.9% of white high school dropouts who were similarly situated regarding income.


Therefore, the researchers’ hypothesis that crime and incarceration outcomes are directly tied to several factors, from education to age to racial identity. Their formula for establishing cumulative risks of imprisonment and applying them to actual figures in the prison population was quite telling: the risk of incarceration declined when education level increased (Ibid.). In addition, the cumulative risk of incarceration was more than five times higher for black men than for white. The most striking fact presented in the results was that an African-American male born between the years of 1965 and 1969 had a 60% chance of ending up in prison. These results confirmed what the researchers had postulated, mainly that serving time in prison has become a rather ordinary aspect of life for a large number of African-American males. They concluded that inherent bias in the criminal justice system must be recognized as one of the most significant and weighty causative factors in the challenges that low income, poorly educated African-American males face in our present day society.

The conclusions of this study indicated that disparities in the criminal justice system that have existed for decades, have remained stable, unfortunately. Since this study reinforced the fact that for too many lower-class African-American males, serving time in prison has become a sort of rite of passage, part of the lifecycle that may be an inevitable part of the path to middle adulthood. In addition to the problems facing African-American males when confronted with the United States criminal justice system, this study introduced the variable of social class as well, making it clear that in addition to racial disparities, the social class differences among those who are arrested and tried for crimes also plays tremendous role in the outcomes for the offenders.

An interesting variable that this study did not address was within the black community, what factors influenced which males committed crimes and ended up in prison, and which ones did not. This has undeniable relevance to social workers, who are trained to work with people by assessing the psychosocial stressors that have impacted their behaviors and attitudes. Certainly, social workers need to be cognizant of the genuine disparities in treatment and decision-making by the criminal justice system that people of color experience as a rule. So many studies have been done over the past decades that have reached the same conclusions that it would be incompetent practice for a social worker not to take these realities into account when working with black families who may have a family member in prison, or a family member who is engaging in risky behavior that might bring him or her into contact with the justice system. It is vital that social workers who are engaging with African-American populations are competent and realistic about the ways in which these factors potentially affect their clients.


The matter of overrepresentation of African-Americans in prisons has been addressed by many reformers and social scientists; in 2009, the US Senate held hearings about the issue, hearing from a variety of experts on the issue. The panel had been convened by Sen. Jim Webb, who introduced a bill to review and revise the current criminal justice system, and characterized the current system as disastrous and “affecting millions of lives and destroying neighborhoods and families.” The message conveyed by the witnesses was that the criminal justice system in the United States has been a failure, that too many people overall are in prison, and that a disproportionate number of inmates are black and brown (Dervarics, 2009.)

Obviously, it is a national disgrace that the disparities in the criminal justice system have existed for such a long time with little apparent effort to correct the statistics. Study after study have shown that differential treatment between the rich and poor, black and white, educated and uneducated when coming into contact with the United States criminal justice system is real. Policymakers, social scientists, educators and researchers have an obligation to, at the very least, make an effort to correct this sad aspect of the “land of the free.”



African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System. (2001). Retrieved February 21, 2012, from Council on Crime and Justice: http://www.racialdisparity.org/files/African%20American%20Males.pdf

Alicia Darensbourg, E. P. (2010). Overrepresentation of African-American Males in Exclusionary Discipline: the Role of School-based Mental Health Professionals in Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline. Retrieved February 21, 2012, from Journal of African American Males in Education: http://journalofafricanamericanmales.com/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2010/09/Overrepresentation-of-African-American-Males-Alicia-Darensbourg-.pdf

Dervarics, C. (2009, June 12). Decrying Overrepresentation of African-Americans in Prisons, Reformers Ask Senate for Changes. Retrieved February 21, 2012, from Diverse Education: http://diverseeducation.com/article/12653/

Dighton, D. (2003, Summer). Minority Overrepresentation in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems. Retrieved February 21, 2012, from The Compiler: http://www.icjia.state.il.us/public/pdf/compiler/summer2003.pdf

Garfinkel, W. D. (2000, Spring). Differential Treatment of African-American Youth. Retrieved February Wendy one, 2012, from The National Center on Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice: http://www.edjj.org/Publications/pub_06_13_00_2.html

Getz, C. (2010, February 25). Black Men Still Overrepresented in Prison. Retrieved February 21, 2012, from Boulder Weekly: http://www.boulderweekly.com/article-1840-black-men-still-overrepresented-in-prison.html

Marable, M. (2008, Fall). Incarceration Versus Education: Reproducing Racism and Poverty in America. Retrieved February 21, 2012, from Race, Poverty, Environment: http://urbanhabitat.org/node/2808

Stratus Health. (2010). Retrieved February 21, 2012, from African-Americans in Minnesota: http://www.culturecareconnection.org/matters/diversity/africanamerican.html

Sum, A. S. (2011, November). High School Dropouts in Chicago and Illinois: the Growing Labor Market, Income, Civic, Social, and Fiscal Course of Dropping out of High School. Retrieved February 21, 2012, from Center for Labor Market Studies, Northwestern University: http://www.northeastern.edu/clms/wp-content/uploads/High-School-Dropouts-in-Chicago-and-Illinois.pdf

Vuong, C. B. (2009, March 18). Created Equal Report: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System. Retrieved February 21, 2012, from Race, Racism and the Law: http://academic.udayton.edu/race/03justice/crime15.htm

Western, B. P. (2004, April). Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in US Incarceration. Retrieved February 21, 2012, from American Sociological Review: http://www.asanet.org/images/members/docs/pdf/featured/ASRv69n2p.pdf