The number of persons in U.S. prisons is more than 2 million—roughly equal to the entire population of Houston, Texas. The massive U.S. prison population does not mirror the demographic profile of U.S. society or the actual patterns of crime. In fact, there is a stark pattern of racial disparity in the prison population that is the result of racial profiling by authorities.
The vast majority of U.S. prisoners are poor, uneducated, unskilled, emotionally or psychologically troubled, drug and/or alcohol dependent, and either Black or Latino.
The racial disparity between prisoners and the general population is particularly profound. Blacks and Latinos together comprise less than 30% of the general population but nearly 70% of the U.S. prison population. How can this be?
Conventional – that is, uninformed – wisdom suggests the reason Blacks and Latinos represent the majority of the prison population is that they commit the majority of all crimes in the U.S. That is simply not the case.
The reality is that Blacks and Latinos are differentially targeted and processed throughout the U.S. criminal justice system. The tremendous discretion afforded the police, prosecutors and judges at all stages of the criminal justice process – from arrest to incarceration and parole – allows Blacks and Latinos to be given harsher treatment than Whites who commit the very same crimes.
This is largely a result of “racial profiling.” According to the ACLU, racial profiling “refers to the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.” Stated differently, racial profiling is the reliance of criminal justice authorities on a group of non-legal personal characteristics they believe to be associated with crime.
Consider these facts: Blacks make up 12% of the U.S. population and comprise 14% of all illegal drug users, but they represent 35% of all drug arrests, 55% of all convictions for drug crimes, and 75% of all those who go to prison for drug crimes! This is clearly not equal justice for Blacks relative to other races.
Disturbingly, racial disparity in the criminal justice process exists for most other crimes, including murder and rape, as well. The startling crime statistics reveal that racially biased patterns of processing are very common throughout the criminal justice system.
It is time to pull the blindfold off of lady justice and admit that she is not blind after all. She sees quite well, indeed. Her acute but sometimes prejudiced vision unfortunately leads her to differentially profile, target and incarcerate many poor Blacks and Latinos.
The result is a prison population that does not fairly represent the true picture or color of criminal activity in the U.S. It’s time to put an end to such practices and deliver justice fairly to all U.S. citizens.
To take action against racial profiling visit https://www.aclu.org/action
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Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website DocBonn.Com