African-Americans in the criminal justice system: Is it all black and white?

Print More


Since 2012, Black Lives Matter has caused a lot of controversy between those who support the movement and those who think it’s a just cry for attention.

The mission of the Black Lives Matter movement includes “working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

Among the movement’s concerns are the number of  blacks in prison and police violence toward blacks.

But are these concerns really justified? Are black people suffering from systemic bias more than other races? Are police violence and incarceration by race related?



According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, yet only 5 percent of the world’s population. Forty-five percent of U.S. prisoners are African-American; whites  make up 47.4 percent.

According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, African-Americans make up 58 percent of the youth in state prisons. The problem is that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 2015, African-Americans only make up 13.3 percent of the country, making these numbers excessively disproportionate.

“The crime gap is smaller than the punishment gap,” says Christopher Uugen, professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota and a fellow of the American Society of Criminology. “The disparities in punishment are just so great … to where you can’t ignore that the system may be operating unfairly.”

In a lot of states, the incarceration black to white ratio is 3.8-to-1 or higher. Is this because they deserve it, or is there an unjust system in place? Those opposed to Black Lives Matter, or black lives, period, might argue that more African-Americans are in jail because African-Americans commit more crimes than any other races. However, evidence suggest this to be untrue.

An example would be the incarceration rates on drugs. According to an analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2011, 17 percent of whites were cocaine users in comparison to 10 percent of blacks. 17.2 percent of whites used hallucinogens, as opposed to 6.7 percent of blacks. However, according to the NAACP, African-Americans are 10 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses.

In 2014, 52.5 percent of blacks who were arrested were incarcerated for drug related crimes. Only 40.3 percent of whites were incarcerated out of those arrested according the the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“There are studies that show that despite the fact that all races use drugs at similar rates, we know that African-Americans are disproportionately represented in prison,” says Jennifer Cobbina, associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University.

One of the reasons for the disparity in arrests, experts say, is that police spend more time in urban communites. In a Washington Post opinion article, Marc Mauer, and David Cole, wrote “…police find drugs where they look for them. Inner-city, open-air drug markets are easier to bust than those that operate out of suburban basements, and numerous studies show that minorities are stopped by police more often than whites.”

A huge number of the African Americans in prison, the authors argue, are there because they couldn’t afford to live in a community where they could hide their petty crimes. On the other hand, a lot of other people aren’t in prison because of the communities they can afford to live in.

“It’s racial inequality throughout the entire system, from being stopped and searched, and arrested, and receiving longer sentences,” Cobbina says. “That’s what’s leading to a large disproportionate number of African-Americans in the system. … The proportion in which they’re incarcerated is three times that of their population in the U.S.”

These issues become a ripple effect and lead to multiple other racial disparities in the criminal justice system. One of these include police violence toward African-Americans compared to other races.

According to data from the Washington Post, U.S. police in 2015 killed twice as many whites as they did blacks. In fact, the Post found that of the 991 who were killed, 258 of them were black, while 495 were white, accounting for almost half. On its face, this information does not support the claim that police brutality is more severe toward blacks than whites. However, after doing some simple math, that changes.

Because African-Americans make up 13.3 percent of America, while whites make up 77.1 percent, we will find that African-Americans are still more likely to be killed by police than whites. Also, according to those statistics, whites are more likely to be wielding a weapon at the time of their deaths.

African Americans, and other minorities are also more likely to be profiled for a routine traffic stop and car search. According to The Bureau of Justice Statistics, 13 percent of African Americans were pulled over as opposed to the 10 percent of whites and Hispanics. They get stopped for things like expired plates and record checks. Speeding is a common reason among all three races, but mostly common among whites.

“They’re also kind of victimized by the criminal justice system. They find that their sentencing is usually heavier than any other minority,” says Brian Kingshott, professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Grand Valley State University.

According to “Police Behavior during Traffic and Street Stops, 2011” by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 37.7 percent of African Americans report being stopped for speeding as opposed to 50.1 percent of whites. African Americans were more likely to be pulled over for record checks or be given no reason at all than whites and Hispanics. However, this isn’t always the fault of the officers themselves.

Eric McDaniel, associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, said urban areas are highly policed because it is an easier way to manage systemic problems than addressing them at the root.

“The reason you have high levels of crime is because you have low levels of employment. If you increase employment, you decrease crime,” McDaniel said. “Increasing employment is much more difficult than increasing police activity. Even though increasing employment is the best way to go about it, it is also the most complicated, and a lot of times people go with the easiest way to solve a problem.”

Comments are closed.