Racial disparities in the United States criminal justice system

According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people. GRAPHIC BY HALEY KEIZUR/FOGHORN

Mimi Endo is a freshman sociology major

Andrea Boesak is a junior sociology major

The U.S. claims justice and freedom as the foundation of its being. However, if you look into its history, you will be presented with boundless contradictions. The most prominent of these contradictions is the treatment of people of color in this country, particularly in the criminal justice system. Consistent patterns of mistreatment and mass incarceration of people of color demonstrate a dangerous imbalance. Innocent people are robbed of a normal and free life, and something must be done to address this issue now. 

Prominent racial and class disparities in the U.S. justice system have always existed, yet there has been no demonstration of reform in the past three decades. The Central Park Five case (1989) fit the historical pattern of minorities being disproportionately targeted. When compared to the People v. Turner (2016) case, institutional and systemic racism become extremely clear. Five innocent boys of color were incarcerated for years for a crime they never committed, while a white man only went to jail for a few months, even with witnesses and medical reports proving his guilt. 

On April 20, 1989, Trisha Meili was clinging onto life in New York City’s Central Park, having been brutally raped and beaten. Young boys of color Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, and Raymond Santana were in Central Park that night and, on this basis alone, they became suspects. Korey Wise, another suspect, was not an original suspect; he was only interrogated because he accompanied Salaam to the police station for moral support. While there were other people in that park that night, these boys, later deemed the “Central Park Five,” were suspected purely on the basis of race. They were still children, aged 14-16 years old. 

Law enforcement coerced the boys into admitting guilt to a crime they had no involvement in. Police used scare tactics, cruelty, and manipulation to turn them against each other. These boys faced a lack of respect and a lack of humanity; sadly, this isn’t an uncommon occurrence, especially for people of color.

In the 30 years since the Central Park Five case, little has been done to address this disparity. And there is no starker example of this than the case of Brock Turner. At around 1 a.m. on Jan. 18, 2015, two Stanford University students witnessed Turner on top of an unconscious woman. Turner ran when the passersby confronted him, but they chased him down. When deputies arrived, they located the unresponsive woman behind a dumpster. The woman, Chanel Miller, had experienced significant trauma and was unable to respond coherently until about 4:15 a.m.

Turner was convicted of three charges of felony sexual assault and sentenced to six months in county jail, followed by three months of probation and lifetime registration as a sex offender. However, Turner was released after only three months. When comparing this to cases such as The Central Park Five, it acts as a study of how white people are treated with more privilege within the justice system than people of color.

The U.S. routinely criminalizes people of color at a disproportionate rate. Unwarranted sentences, unjust treatment, and wrongful incarceration consistently produce patterns of injustice. The Central Park Five case is only one example; the list goes on. Incarceration is psychologically damaging for anyone, but especially for the developing brain — not only for those already imprisoned but for those who face disproportionate threats of incarceration, such as our youth of color. It instills fear of a system that has sworn to serve and protect them. This becomes more of an issue when one is innocent and incarcerated for years.

On a systemic level, it is imperative that we reform the current justice system and educate those in authority about implicit bias, racism, mental health risks of imprisonment, and diversity. Major reform of the criminal justice system and in prison treatment needs to happen. 

As citizens, we should not stand for a system that does not treat us equally. We are losing our children to a school-to-prison pipeline designed to trap youth of color within the system. We should be talking about this openly and educating ourselves on why our youth of color are being incarcerated and criminalized, while white youth are not subjected to the same mistreatment. 

These discussions are hard, and it is difficult to get those in power to listen. But our children of color need us. They cannot continue to fall victim to the cycle of a system created at their disadvantage.


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