Race and the Criminal Justice System

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Table of Contents

  • Health and healthcare
  • Housing
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Credit and debt
  • Immigration
  • Voting rights

When people of color are disproportionately targeted by police and incarcerated, this leads to disadvantages in other arenas of life, such as health, family life, employment, and political power. Here are four targets for policy change:

Police stops and arrests. Controlling for suspect demeanor, offense severity, presence of witnesses, evidence at the scene, prior record of the suspect, and other factors, minority suspects in one study had a 30% higher chance of being arrested than white suspects. In predominantly White neighborhoods in St. Louis, traffic stops were more likely to include a search in stops of Black drivers than of White drivers, especially by White police officers, controlling for characteristics of the officer, driver, and stop.

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Punishment outcomes. A study using data from New York, found that Black and Latino (but not Asian) defendants are disadvantaged compared to Whites when it comes to pretrial detention, plea offers, and sentences of incarceration. This effect is particularly strong for Blacks charged with felony violent crimes and drug crimes.

The disproportionate incarceration of men of color. Of African American young men who dropped out of high school, 37% were incarcerated in 2008, compared to less than 1% of the general population. Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab and Justice Mapping Center have mapped “million-dollar blocks:” neighborhood blocks that have such a high concentration of residents incarcerated that states are spending over a million dollars a year to incarcerate residents from a single block. (On average it costs $28,000 a year to incarcerate someone in state prison).

Innovate policy solutions post-release. Post-incarceration, employment is a major determinant of whether people end up back in prison. One policy solution that has been getting a lot of traction in select states is “banning the box.” This would allow prospective employees to make it beyond the initial application without having to disclose felonies or misdemeanors, reducing discrimination based on prior offense history. Check out this resource for more information on the banning the box campaign.

Health and healthcare

Institutional racism in American health care results in racial and ethnic minorities facing disproportionate barriers to care as well as lower quality of care. Cost barriers have a greater effect on communities of color than on Whites. Closures of hospital trauma centers increased travel time for emergency care in areas with large Black populations more than other areas, during a time when trauma-related mortality increased for this population. Counties with a higher proportion of Black residents are less likely than other counties to have substance abuse treatment facilities that accept public insurance. While a greater proportion of Black patients live near high-quality hospitals than white patients, Black patients are more likely than Whites to have surgery in lower quality hospitals. Majority Black zip codes are also more likely than other zip codes to have a shortage of primary care physicians. Black, Latina, and Native-American mothers may be more likely to have unnecessary caesarian deliveries, racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in clinical trials, resulting in treatments that have not been proven effective for non-White patients. When healthcare providers hold implicit biases, Black patients rate their physicians lower on measures of patient-centered care and communication than do White patients. The locations of providers, cost of care, implicit racial bias in medical school graduates and exclusion from treatment research all contribute to inequities in health outcomes for people of color.


US lending practices in the mid-20th century built a problem we’re still living with. In 1935, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board commissioned the creation of a set of maps to guide investment opportunities for housing in the coming years. The maps that emerged separated 239 American cities into 4 types of areas, ranked from most- to least-desirable for development opportunities. The least desirable of those areas, outlined in red, were overwhelmingly the sites of historically Black neighborhoods. Those within those “redlined” areas found it difficult or impossible to secure loans or mortgages for housing and development. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 aimed to correct this. But that fell far short of solving the problem; recent court cases continue to confront discriminatory development policies.

One potential solution is mobility vouchers. The Clinton-era Mobility to Opportunity (MTO) program, which provided vouchers enabling low-income families (most of them headed by Hispanic or Black single mothers) to move to low-poverty areas, has long been considered a net failure, at least in terms of economic and performance gains. Kids who moved didn’t have significantly greater school performance, and their parents didn’t see a lot of growth in their incomes. A recent study, however, uses a newly available outcome measure to probe success – the earned adult incomes of those kids who moved, versus those who didn’t – and finds that in this longer view, the program was more successful than originally thought. Kids who moved to low-poverty areas before the age of 13 earned 31% more as adults than those who didn’t. Housing segregation is both a class and race issue, and this new evidence suggests that this approach shouldn’t be dropped too quickly.

More broadly, sociologist Matthew Desmond, author of the new book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, has suggested expanding housing vouchers to all families below the 30th percentile of in their areas – allowing them to spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent – which would be “an anti-poverty effort, human capital investment, community improvement plan and public health initiative all rolled into one.” The cost of such a program, which would disproportionately help racial and ethnic minorities still paying the price for housing segregation and exploitation, would be small compared with the massive annual tax subsidy for middle-class and rich homeowners.


End segregation in schools. American schools are still largely segregated by race. Even after accounting for differences in the racial composition between neighborhoods, schools remain racially segregated due to White students’ enrollment in private, magnet, and charter schools. Persistent racial segregation has a detrimental effect on the academic performance of students of color, but integration has no significant effect on the academic work of White students.

Treat students of color better. In the classroom, students of color are disproportionately punished with higher severity. Recent sociological literature suggests that the problem is both more widespread than previously believed and has significant consequences that extend beyond the classroom. School suspension explains about one-fifth of disparities in academic achievement between Black and White students, limiting Black students’ opportunities after graduation. Disparate discipline in schools also contributes to Black overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system.


Blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed as Whites, and the earnings of both Blacks and Hispanics continue to lag well behind those of Whites. While employment discrimination on the basis of race was outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, experimental audit studies focusing on hiring decisions have consistently found strong evidence of racial discrimination, with estimates of White preference ranging from 50% to 240%. Discrimination plays a part in explaining the Black-White wage gap, and recent studies have shown that racial discrimination affects college educated Blacks – regardless of what school they graduated from. Unsurprisingly, racial discrimination has an even greater impact on Blacks without a college degree and those with a criminal record. Discrimination even affects workers in the same job, in the same company, and with equal scores on performance evaluations.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to reduce racial discrimination in the U.S. labor market. For example, the Fair Employment Protection Act, which was introduced in 2012 but not enacted, would remove barriers to workers seeking to file class action lawsuits. Similarly, the Fair Pay Act, which was introduced in 2013 and referred to committee in 2015, would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to prohibit discrimination in the payment of wages on account of sex, race, or national origin. Finally, we could combat racial discrimination in employment by increasing punitive monetary fines against discriminatory employers and increasing funding and enforcement power for the under-resourced U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in order to more effectively enforce the anti-discrimination laws already on the books.

Credit and debt

Ending institutional racism requires attention to reducing racial wealth inequality while also monitoring and working to end discrimination in credit markets. Reducing wealth inequality requires tackling debt problems. Predatory lending and unequal credit costs and debt collection patterns are pillars of institutional racism in credit markets. While credit access has increased for everyone, minorities pay higher interest rates than Whites for housing and have been subject to abuse from predatory lenders. We also see that lawsuits for the repayment of consumer debt are clustered in black neighborhoods.

Tackling student loan debt is also important. More students of color have to borrow money to attend college than Whites, are less likely to finish, and are more likely to default. Black wealth does not protect Black students from student loan debt in the same way it does for Whites. (For more comprehensive policy recommendations on ending racial wealth inequality, see work done by the researchers at the Center for Global Policy Solutions.)


If the president is going to tackle institutional racism, he or she will need to tackle immigration policy (and not by building more walls). Immigration law has historically been used to classify and exclude people on the basis of race (for example, the Chinese exclusion laws). Today’s immigration policy is no different. Federal activities have been increased in recent years to target Latinos: for example, after the fortification of the US-Mexico border in the 1990s, Mexicans are criminally prosecuted for illegally crossing the border and can face prison time and felon criminal records. Recent research has found that for Latinos, immigration law is increasingly intertwined with criminal law, resulting in greater dangers for those crossing the border and increasing fear among immigrants that family members will be deported. In the “war on terror” Muslims are targets for federal immigration policy enforcement. Although post-9/11 federal policies supposedly only target noncitizens suspected of terrorism, in practice, Arab and Muslim citizens are singled out for racial and religious profiling and denial of due process.

Voting rights

Progress against institutional racism in the electoral system suffered a serious blow at the hands of the Supreme Court in 2013. There is little doubt that restrictions on voter access – especially those enacted in the last few years – are driven by Republican partisan politics and racial politics in particular. The effect is likely to be fewer minorities voting and more Republicans elected. One voter restriction that deserves special attention is the policy in many states of banning former prisoners from voting. The effects are strong and decidedly racial. One needs only look back to 2000 to see that George W. Bush wouldn’t have been elected if former felons in Florida could have voted. 

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