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In 1954, at the time of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, African Americans constituted about 30% of persons admitted to state and federal prisons. That figure should have been disturbing since it was substantially higher than the black share of the national population. But that proportion has now increased; still more dramatically, to the point where blacks represent half of all prison admissions. This development would seem to be rather odd considering the changes that have taken place in American society over the past half-century. Mauer & Huling, 1995) According to 2005 Census Bureau statistics, the male African-American population of the United States aged between 18 and 24 numbered 1,896,000. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 106,000 African Americans in this age group were in federal or state prisons at the end of 2005. If you add the numbers in local jail (measured in mid-2006), you arrive at a grand total of 193,000 incarcerated young Black males, or slightly over 10 percent.

Everybody acknowledges that incarceration rates among young black males are much higher than among whites or Hispanics. An August 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis shows that 32 percent of black males born in 2001 can expect to spend time in prison over the course of their lifetime. That is up from 13. 4 percent in 1974 and 29. 4 percent in 1991. By contrast, 17. 2 percent of Hispanics and 5. 9 percent of whites born in 2001 are likely to end up in prison. (Brown, 2007) The Percent of African American males in the Penal System

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Nationally, black Americans account for fewer than half of the arrests for violent crimes, but they account for just over half of the convictions, and approximately 60 percent of the prison admissions. (Stone, 1999) Thus, if African Americans exhibit higher rates of serious offending and/or have lengthier criminal histories than other groups, we could expect this to be reflected in the composition of the prison population. For property offenses, African Americans constituted 32% of arrests in 1996, disproportionate to their 13% share of the national population. In data explained by sociologists Robert Crutchfield, George Bridges, and Susan Pitchford found that while national level data seemed to show a high correlation between arrest rats and incarceration for African Americans the variation in this relationship at the state level was quite significant. In the northeast states, only 69% of racial disparity was explained by arrest, while in the north central states, fewer blacks were actually incarcerated than one would have predicated by just using arrest data.

Overall, this suggests that a variety of factors, which include crime rates, law enforcement practices, and sentencing legislation, may play a role in the degree of racial disparity in incarceration. Crutchfield, Bridges & Pitchford, 1994) Race and Class Effects As the trials of O. J. Simpson illustrated so clearly, discussions of race and the criminal justice system are often heavily overlaid with considerations of class as well. Racial disparities are related in part to the volume of crime committed by various groups, but they are also a function of differing forms of treatment that relate to the background and resources of the offender. Criminologist Delbert Elliott has conducted analyses of youthful offending and its relation to race and class.

In longitudinal studies of data from the National Youth Survey he has found several intriguing patterns: • Self-reported rates of offending behavior by young males are high across all racial groups, with 42% of males reporting that they have engaged in some form of violent offending – aggravated assault, robbery, or rape – by the age of 27. • Black males engage in serious violent offending at higher rates than white males, but not dramatically so. By age 27, 48% of black males have reported at least one instance of such behavior, compared to 38% of white males, a ratio of about 5:4.

For lower class males, the differences are even smaller, about 7:6 black to white. • Offenses by blacks are more likely to lead to arrest than those of whites. While the self reported involvement of adolescent males represents a 3:2 black/white differential, the arrest ratio is 4:1. • While there are no dramatic differences in the degree to which blacks and whites become involved in offending at some point, blacks are nearly twice as likely to continue offending into their twenties. The key variable in this regard is the adoption of adult roles.

Thus, among young adults who are employed or living in a stable relationship there are no significant differences in the persistence of offending by race. Overall, these studies suggest that while criminal behavior cuts across race and class lines, the societal response to these behaviors may significantly influence the course of a potential criminal career. Decisions regarding the most effective balance of responses by law enforcement, social services, and community intervention are critical in determining many of these outcomes Race and Class Effects.

A second factor that may explain higher rates of incarceration is the criminal history of an offender. The more serious a prior criminal record, the greater the likelihood of receiving a prison term for a new offense. Whether one acquires a criminal record is clearly in part related to the level of criminal activity, but it is also often a function of race, geographical location and many other factors. Many African Americans, for example, have experienced the crime known as “Driving While Black. In different parts of the country, there is strong evidence regarding the propensity of police to stop black males while driving for alleged traffic violations. Often, the justification offered for these actions is that they are necessary for the purpose of apprehending alleged drug traffickers, with the aid of drug courier profiles. (Harris, 1997) In Volusia County in central Florida, researchers documenting traffic stops made by local police in the late 1980s found that more than 70% of the drivers stopped were ether African American or Hispanic.

This compared to data showing blacks constituted 12% of the state’s driving age population and 15% of drivers convicted of traffic violations. Blacks and Hispanics were also stopped for longer periods than whites, and represented 80% of the cars that were searched following a stop. These types of discretionary law enforcement practices may lead to African Americans acquiring a criminal record more rapidly than whites, later resulting in a greater chance of receiving a prison sentence. (Blumstein, 1993)

Causes/Reasons. Seven out of every 10 African-American children are born out of wedlock, according to testimony given by a leading policy researcher during a Joint Economic Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D. C. ( Gale, 2007) In what is being called the “nation’s worst crisis in the history of the Black family,” hearing participants attributed the degenerating situation to the particularly disturbing plight of young African-American men half of whom are unemployed, and have 30 percent chance of serving time in prison before age 30.

And among Black men who drop out of high school which is estimated at 40 percent, the situation is worse. Of those 72 percent are jobless, and the likelihood of being incarcerated jumps to 60 percent. In fact, a Black male in his late 20s without a high school diploma is more likely to be in jail than to be working, even in light of a relative strong economy and advances of the Black middle and upper class, said Ronald Mincy, a professor of social policy at Columbia University who conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of Black men.

Mincy, citing other studies, said that single parenthood, lack of education, and incarceration are a vicious cycle in the Black community. “Living with a single mother increases the likelihood of dropping out of school,” he said. The effects of single parenting on dropping out of school are larger the longer a child is in a single parent home and larger for boys than girls. Senator Charles Schumer points to failing schools, racism, and the decimation of manufacturing jobs as the culprits that continue to suck the life out of the American dream for blacks.

Recommendations that came from this hearing included increased funding on programs aimed at less educated Black males. Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System Racial bias in the criminal justice system is rampant. African American men, in particular, are overrepresented in all criminal justice statistics: arrests, victimizations, incarceration and executions. This imbalance is largely the result of the “war on drugs. ” Although studies show that drug use among blacks and whites is comparable, many more blacks than whites are arrested on drug charges.

This is because the police find it easier to concentrate their forces in inner city neighborhoods, where drug dealing tends to take place on the streets, than to mount more costly and demanding investigations in the suburbs, where drug dealing generally occurs behind closed doors. Today, one in four young black men is are under some form of criminal sanction, be it incarceration, probation or parole. Because many of these laws include drug offenses as prior “strikes,” more black than white offenders will be subject to life sentences under a “3 Strikes” law. Hagan & Peterson, 1995) Under the “3 Strikes” law, a person who is convicted of three felonies is given a mandatory 25 years to life sentence. A felony is defined as any crime punishable by one year or more in prison. The law has been criticized for applying a one-size fits all sentences to repeat offenders. The often noted example is one young man who received the sentence after stealing a pizza. Those who oppose the law believe that it is a violation of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution.

The 8th Amendment prohibits the use of cruel or unjust punishment by the state. Many would argue that certain clients’ prosecution under the law violates the amendment. If just one case violates the amendment, the law is unconstitutional and should be overturned. In assessing the extent to which racial bias within the criminal justice system has contributed to these disparities, there is mixed research evidence. Imposition of the death penalty provides the most compelling evidence for ongoing racial disparity.

A series of studies has demonstrated that, controlling for a wide range of variables, the race of both victim and offender has a significant impact on the determination of a sentence of death as opposed to life in prison. David Baldus and colleagues, for example, found that murder defendants charged with killing whites faced a 4. 3 times greater chance of receiving death than those charged with killing blacks. (Baldus, Pulaski & Woodworth, 1983) Solutions Americans believe in a system of justice where all individuals are treated fairly under the law.

But mandatory minimum sentencing laws prohibit judges from considering all the facts in a criminal case when determining sentences. The result is one-size-fits-all justice that ignores defendants’ life circumstances, criminal history and role in the offense. The 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Acts established excessive mandatory penalties for crack cocaine that were the harshest ever adopted for low-level drug offenses and created drastically different penalty structures for crack cocaine compared to powder cocaine, which are pharmacologically identical substances.

The law has diverted precious resources away from prevention and treatment for drug users and devastated communities ripped apart by incarceration. The previous law detailed if a person was convicted of having one gram of crack cocaine in his possession, he would received a mandatory five years prison time. A person with powder cocaine must have 100 grams to get the same mandatory sentence of five years. Hence, the 100:1 ratio. The Obama’s Fair Sentencing Act law narrows the ratio from 100:1 to 18:1. President Obama campaigned on a platform that included closing the sentencing gap.

From the beginning, the unbalance crack 100:1 ratio was targeted towards African-American. Crack cocaine users tend to be mostly poorer, African Americans or Hispanics. Powder cocaine users are usually white blue-collar suburbanites. The reality here is, a crack is a crack is a crack. To help eliminate the disparities that are experienced in African American males in the penal system the reconstruction of mandatory sentencing should be revisited. The punishment needs to meet the crime. Excessiveness in prosecution shouldn’t be allowed in a country where the values are based on equality.

Conclusion The origins of the crisis of the African American male as it regards to the criminal justice system extends far back in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, despite admirable progression in reducing racial bias in many areas of society during the past several decades the overrepresentation of black males in the justice system has clearly worsened. While the situation is urgent in many regards, there is some reason for cautious optimism. Support for change in criminal justice policies and programs have been growing in recent years.

The introduction of drug courts, prison-based treatment programs, and community policing are all indications of public and policymaker support for problem-solving responses to individual and community crises. In addition, many communities are now engaged in locally-based programs that provide support to young people. These include mentoring programs, recreational activities, and personal skills development. The challenge for the community at large is to engage in broad discussion of the mix of family, community, and government initiatives that can begin to reverse the cycle that has been set in motion in recent years.


Nelson, James F. (1995), Disparities in Processing Felony Arrests in New York State, Division of Criminal Justice, p 1990-92, Albany, NY. Riley, Jack (1997) Crack, Powder Cocaine, and Heroin: Drug Purchase and Use patterns in six U. S. Cities, National Institute of Justice, p. 1. Hagan, John & Ruth Peterson (1995), Criminal Inequality in American and Patterns & Consequences, Crime and Inequality, Stanford California: Stanford University Press, p. 28. Harris, David (1997) Driving While Black and All other traffic offenses, Journal of Criminal Law and Crimonology, p. 7 Huling, Tracy & Marc Maurer (1995), Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later, The Sentencing Project. Blumstein, Alfred (1993), Racial Disproportionally of U. S. Prison Populations Revisited, University of Colorado Law Review, Vol. 64, No. 3. Crutchfield, R, Bridges, G & Pitchford, S (1994), Analytical and Aggregation Biases in Analyses of Imprisonment: Reconciling Discrepancies in Studies of Racial Disparity, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.