Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Crime and Punishment

         In my psychology class, we had discussed the importance of presentation in the sentencing of youth. If the youth is more attractive, the study finds that his or her sentence is less severe than an unattractive youth who has committed a similar crime. This worried me a little bit because I began to wonder if this discrimination could be applicable to different races and ethnicities as well.
So, I decided to investigate this, and I came across an incident that had occurred in Jena, La, which had been the home to some of the largest civil rights protests in previous times. The school that this incident had occurred in was well-known for its racial tensions since the school consisted of an overwhelmingly 85% of Caucasians. In addition, the school had gained publicity in recent years because of various insensitive pranks, such as tying nooses onto trees. Various parents had complained, and the FBI had decided to take a look at it. However, no hate-crime charges were brought to court. 
Within the next few months, an officer had seen six African-American youths beating a Caucasian peer. Thus, the six African-American students were charged with attempted murder for the battery of a young Caucasian peer. However, the punishment of these youths was a disproportionate response, and it highlighted the racial tensions that were still present in the South. The students were arrested, and five were tried as adults not on assault charges but on attempted murder charges. Later on, these charges were reduced. This case had brought about numerous questions concerning how race affected the judiciary systems in the more conservative areas of the South.
Furthermore, I found that just a few years ago, the Supreme Court decided to enact stricter consequences for drug crimes that involved crack as opposed to powdered cocaine. I didn’t really see this as a racial issue until I read a New York Times article (Glater, 2007) that posited that this was in fact a racial issue since African-American cocaine users tended to use crack, which was the less expensive form of cocaine.
This issue of racial discrimination in the practice of law has been ardently protested in the past. The Supreme Court has constantly rejected this notion of biases and refuses to acknowledge the disparities in the criminal justice system. There have been numerous statistical studies that have been conducted that have quantified the biases displayed in court hearings. For example, in 1987, the defendant Warren McCleskey, an African-American male, was convicted of armed robbery and the murder of a Caucasian police officer. The jury had suggested the death penalty, and the court had ruled in favor of the jury.
This decision had been appealed because the sentence seemed to reek of racial discrimination. The appeal was supported by Baldus (1983) who found after looking through 2500 murder cases in Georgia that minorities convicted of murdering Caucasians tended to bear heavier and more severe sentences, such as the death penalty. Even after controlling for confounding variables, Baldus (1983) found that criminals who were found guilty of murdering Caucasians were 4.3% more likely to receive the death penalty than when criminals murdered African-Americans. This finding sets a dangerous precedent because it hints at the racial discrimination that occurs in the sentencing of the death penalty.
Baldus’ finding has been replicated in recent times. In 2005, the Justice Department found that when minorities, specifically Hispanic and African-Americans, and Caucasians were stopped, Hispanic and African-American drivers were searched significantly higher (11.4% and 10.2% respectively) than Caucasian drivers (3.5%) (Glater, 2007). Furthermore, it has been found that there are higher percentages of African Americans than Caucasians in prisons, which showed that African-Americans not only were charged with all offenses but their sentences were longer than that of Caucasians.
Many scholars have expounded on this phenomenon. For example, Dr. Davis, who was a law professor at the prestigious American University, asserted that the judges and prosecutors do not racially discriminate deliberately. Because of the lack of time and information concerning the defendant, many law officials tend to stereotype unintentionally. Dr. Davis stated that she felt as if it were an unconscious behavior, which does not make the court’s decision concerning an African-American defendant any less difficult or fair. However, Dr. Davis found that perhaps the fact that the discrimination is unintentional could be a small consolation.
I find the idea of unconscious racism even more frustrating that much of these discriminations are unconscious because then it seems as if there is no remedy to the years of discrimination that African-Americans have faced. From a scientific basis, we are all H. Sapiens, the same species. This idea of race is a constricting social construct used to perpetuate economically vitality for the Caucasians in the past. How do we combat unconscious racial discrimination in sentencing? 


  1. Racial Profiling is such a significant problem in our society in terms of the executive and judiciary system. I recently came across a study which reported that 1 in 15 black children have an incarcerated parent while only 1 in 100 white children do. Though this study is full of socioeconomic confounds, it is still valid to consider how racial profiling of law enforcement officials might play a role in the significant difference between these numbers. Another circumstance that I recall from last year which had similar implications on the ways which race plays a role in a convict’s given sentence was the death sentence of Troy Davis, a man whose guilt had not was not certain but was given the lethal injection anyways. I remember wondering if the same fate would have come to him had he been white.
    Combating this issue, which is so woven into the foundation of our society, is likely impossible because the ideas that lead to racial profiling are internal. How can we fight against a system that is driven by an unconscious experience? I think the main way to do this is to stop allowing racial profiling to be unconscious and to recognize it in our society. If we bring attention to the problem and force people to note its presence, it will be impossible to ignore. It is also important that communities who are faced with profiling work in collaboration with each other to make changes.

  2. I think that combating unconscious racial discrimnation in sentencing can be extremely difficult. It is unconcious because this racial discrimination is so ingrained in people's minds. There this sort of perpetuation of racial discrimnation as those minorities start believing that they are actually crimnials themselves. So it is not just in the mindset of these judges but also in the mindset of these unjustly charged criminals. I think this is just another example of how race still plays a huge role in society today. It is recognizing this fact that will only change outcomes.

  3. For me, racial profiling, regardless its possible existence in our subconscience, has no bearing in society. It not only violates the human rights of all of its victims but also serves as a serious detriment to the equality between blacks and whites in the United States. For example, targeting minorities with the mindset that they are “probably breaking the law” will not help lower the crime rate in poorer neighborhoods. It can be reasoned that there will be more crime in areas of the country where poverty is more present, but if these zones are left alone, they will only become poorer and more violent with the pressures of police looking in on their every move. Rather than exploiting their frustration in order to meet a quota, the just thing to do, and the only way to bridge the gap is to use the money that goes into the extra cop cars and officers and put it into these poorer communities.

    Improving the education of the younger residents, the resources available to their parents (nicer grocery stores, more office buildings, etc.), the luxuries available to the community (e.g. movie theatres and playgrounds), and anything else that could restore the brotherhood among all citizens of the U.S. would seem to be a more positive and promising option than throwing handfuls of people in jail. Obviously restoration-oriented movements have been tried before, but they have simply not been strong enough. In order to change the mindset of both sides, we will have to physically see each other as equals. Only then will we exist peacefully under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as written.