A death row inmate makes his way to his East Block cell after spending time in the yard at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California in 2016. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Opinion

Opinion: Unjustified Justice: Systemic racism in the criminal justice system

Black Americans are disproportionately harmed by the criminal justice system in the United States.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/edwinbai/" target="_self">Edwin Bai</a>

Edwin Bai

March 12, 2022
In modern American society, the question of whether or not systemic racism actually exists has been hotly debated in recent times. Although many will argue that systemic racism isn’t real, the American Criminal Justice System has been proven to be biased toward white Americans and against Black Americans on a number of levels ranging from length of prison sentences to severity of punishments, illustrating the reality of systemic racism in the United States.

Black Americans receive notably longer punishments than white Americans for the same crime. As shown in a U.S. Sentencing Commission, Black men who committed the same crimes as white men received prison sentences that were around 19% longer. 

In the same vein, African Americans in general receive sentence lengths that are almost 10% longer than those of white Americans who committed the same crimes, according to Marit Rehavi and Sonja Starr. In fact, in federal courts, the average sentence length between 2008 and 2009 were 55 months for white people, and 90 months for Black people, according to the same documentation. 

Furthermore, the very jurors within our justice systems express racial biases disfavoring Black people. According to a West Virginia Law Review in 2010, when a perpetrator who had dark skin was shown as evidence in an armed robbery case, mock-jurors were shown to be more in favor of a guilty verdict compared to participants who were shown evidence of a lighter skinned perpetrator. 

The empirical study conducted was done to test the Biased Evidence Hypothesis, which posits that jurors may “unintentionally evaluate ambiguous trial evidence in racially biased ways when racial stereotypes are activated”. The outcome of this study confirms the hypothesis, proving how systemic racism does exist, not only as part of the criminal justice system, but also as part of a juror’s mentality when confronted with racial stereotypes.

The United States justice system also appears to value Black and white lives differently when they’re the victims of crime, as proven by the sentencing of murderers to death based on the race of their victims.

According to a North Carolina Law Review, murderers who killed white people were 3 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those suspected of killing Black people between 1990 and 2007. In the same vein, defendants who commit homicide against white victims are more likely to be sentenced to death than defendants who murder Black victims. While 66.7% of white victim cases end in a death sentence, only 44.4% of Black victim cases end in a death sentence, an appalling 22.3% difference.

As reported by DePaul University, it is stated that about ⅓ of defendants with white victims who were sentenced to death could have dodged the death penalty if their victims had been African Americans. 

In a research paper by Cornell Legal Studies titled “The Delaware Death Penalty: An Empirical Study,” it is shown that Black defendants with white victims were 7 times more likely to be sentenced to death than if their victims had been Black. In addition, Black defendants who kill white victims are over 3 times as likely to be given the death penalty compared to white defendants who kill white victims. 

Moreover, it is shown in a Washington Race Study that Black defendants were 4.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants. These studies repeatedly show how the American criminal justice system favors white lives over Black lives, illustrating how severely systemic racism affects people on a racial bias.

These studies and many others have shown us that systemic racism is very real and very influential in our American Criminal Justice System. It cannot be denied that Black people are treated differently, most often poorly, as compared to whites in our so called “justice” system.

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