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Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice

Shasta N Inman

Racial Disparities in Criminal Justice

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Last year, protests erupted across the country related to police brutality against people of color. The Black Lives Matter movement was in the news every day—and even painted on the streets of cities nationwide.

Those events have focused the public criminal-justice-reform dialogue on avoiding violent first interactions between officers and individuals of color. However, those first interactions are not the only ones that are unjust. The criminal justice system’s pervasive problems with racism start before the first contact and continue through pleas, conviction, incarceration, release, and beyond.

The net effects of history’s injustices are staggering. According to statistics the NAACP examined, although Black people make up 13.4 percent of the population, they make up:

  • 22 percent of fatal police shootings,
  • 47 percent of wrongful conviction exonerations, and
  • 35 percent of individuals executed by the death penalty.

African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at five times the rate of whites. Black men face disproportionately harsh incarceration experiences as compared with prisoners of other races. Racial disparities are also noticeable with Black youth, as evidenced by the school-to-prison pipeline and higher rates of incarceration for Black juveniles.

The evidence of differential treatment and injustice in the “justice” system is overwhelming. Because the problems are historically rooted, pervasive, and ongoing, it is even more critical to take action now (and in the future). The question, then, is what can we do about it? Attorneys have a unique role in the administration of justice. Here are a few ways we can use our law degrees to join the fight for genuinely equitable justice:

  • Stay apprised of national events, instances of police brutality, statutory changes, and case law—awareness is the first step!
  • Work locally to hold the system accountable by pointing out inequities in police and court treatment of people of color.
  • Get involved in local mentorship and pipeline programs that increase diversity in the legal profession.
  • Become a National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer to protect the right to protest.
  • Apply to become a Court Justice Act (CJA) appointed attorney in your local federal district courts or courts of appeals to represent indigent criminal defendants and individuals seeking federal habeas relief.
  • Reach out to local state and federal courts with re-entry programs designed to assist recently released individuals in re-entering society.
  • Research ways to get involved in battling juvenile mass incarceration.

Race & the (In)Justice System, an On-Demand CLE webinar that's free for ABA members, focuses on the racial disparity in the criminal justice system and the disproportionate effect of mass incarceration on people of color. Watch the webinar to learn more about the cause of racial disparity in our criminal justice system, the collateral consequences of mass incarceration on people of color, and what lawyers can do to drive meaningful change to reduce the racial disparity.