This week’s readings focused primarily on the ways in which the criminal justice system perpetuates its own flaws and weaknesses. Although the percentages of people of all races involved in drug crimes are relatively equivalent, African Americans and Latinos are targeted far more than white Americans. Alexander provides evidence of this: in a report done in 2000, white students use cocaine and heroin at a rate 7 times higher than black students and crack cocaine 8 times the rate of black students. This study also found that white youth between the ages of 12 and 17 are a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than black youth (Alexander, 99). However, regardless of these statistics, prisons are undeniably populated by minorities. Black men have been admitted to state prisons on drug charges at a rate 13 times higher than white men (Alexander, 100). Of all people imprisoned for drug offenses, three-fourths have been either black or Latino (Alexander, 98).
These disproportionate rates are made possible by the fact that law enforcement officers are given free rein in the War on Drugs. There are far too many cases of illegal drug use throughout the country; at least 10% of all Americans violate drug laws every year (Alexander, 123). These levels of offenses force law enforcement officers to narrow down their search into specific areas and onto specific targets. They are given immense amounts of discretion regarding who to “stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein” (Alexander, 103). Many departments turn their attention, therefore, to the inner cities, arguing that these are the most compacted region for drug offenses; more people in a smaller area allow officers to spot drug offenses easier and more efficiently. What this results in, however, is the ability for law enforcement officers to use racial biases whether intentionally or not to determine who to target and stop.
The targeting of minorities within inner cities results in the disproportionate percentage of minorities incarcerated. Regardless of the evidence provided to the courts, the justice system itself makes it impossible to prove racial discrimination. Through a string of court decisions, the Supreme Court has consistently closed the door to challenges of racial discrimination within the judicial system. With Whren vs. United States the Court was able to determine that police officers are able to use minor traffic violations as an excuse to stop motorists for drug investigations (Alexander, 108). This legalized the ability for police officers to use race as a reason to stop and search motorists as long as another explanation for the stop could be provided. In McCleskey vs. Kemp, the Supreme Court determined that racial bias in sentencing could not be challenged under the 14th Amendment without clear proof of conscious, discriminatory intent (Alexander, 109). As long as no one explicitly stated race as a reason for the sentencing chosen in a case, racial discrimination could not be argued. In Purkett vs. Elm the Court ruled in favor of an attorney’s ability to remove a juror from a case for any reason, regardless of how trivial it may seem (Alexander, 122). This drastically limited a defendant’s ability to be tried by his peers; a right granted to him in the Sixth Amendment. Black defendants no longer had access to a jury of people like himself, but in actuality would be tried by people who may very well seek the worst punishment regardless of the evidence of the case.
The McCleskey case made it possible for attorneys to choose punishment for a crime for whatever reason they may find. This results in uneven punishments between black, white, and Latino criminals committing the same crime. In 2000 a study found that among youth who had never been to a juvenile prison, black kids were more than 6 times as likely as whites to be sentenced to prison for the same crimes (Alexander, 118). In Georgia prosecutors sought the death penalty in 70% of cases involving a black defendant and white victims, but only 19% involving white defendants and black victims (Alexander, 110). These numbers indicate an obvious difference between the ways in which attorneys approach cases involving black or white defendants. They are far more likely to ask for a far more severe punishment of a black defendant than a white one.
What all of this creates is a cyclical process within the justice system. As the former New Jersey attorney general said, law enforcement officers point to the racial breakdown within our prisons as justification for targeting minorities, but the numbers of blacks and Latinos within the system are in fact the product of racial profiling, not a justification for the behavior (Alexander, 134). African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately in our prisons because of racial discrimination and bias. The numbers are not a reflection on the actual facts of crime rates; they are evidence that the justice system perpetuates its own misguided behaviors.