Minority groups in criminal justice.
Minority groups are often misrepresented or overrepresented in the media and social systems in general. However, the criminal justice system is under constant scrutiny with regards to this subject. There are many ways of viewing the problem and we look at the two arguments available for this awkward discussion. Clearly there are those who belief the minority are overrepresented, and those who believe they are not, yet what are the facts? As a social issue it can be said that in the United States today, similar to all other previous slavery empowered countries, is undergoing a change where those who were disadvantaged at some stage are trying to assimilate themselves into a society where growth had already been experienced. There is therefore a gap between those who have and those who are not used to having. This is an aspect that takes time to adjust while on the other hand there are legitimate cases where someone of has been unjustly been prosecuted. All this said, are minority groups really overrepresented? We present arguments on both sides in order to come up with an informed decision about what the matter truly entails and discuss why minority groups are not overrepresented.
In January of 2008, PEW Center on the States released a document regarding the amount of people in jail or incarcerated in America today. The study revealed that a startling 1 in 100 adults in the US were behind bars as of the beginning of this year (PEW, 2008: 5). What was of further interest was that in the age-group of 20-34, 1 in 9 black men were behind bars as opposed to 1 in 36 Hispanic men ages 18 and older. The average for white men aged 18 and older stood at 1 in 106. Black men ages 18 and over were numbered at 1 in 15 (PEW, 2008: 6).The number of black offenders was divided into two age-groups while the other categories were not. This evidence neither defends not attacks the idea that the black population could be overrepresented, but merely states facts around which we can formulate out own hypothesis. Black women aged 35-39 were also substantially higher (at 1 in 100) than any other category (PEW, 2008: 6). The reasons why these figures are as such, are multiple: socio-economic structures; childhood upbringing; prejudice and even value structures. The first port of call in terms of understanding the problem is something put forward by a William Wilson in an interview on Frontline.
Wilson had dedicated his life to understanding and explaining why certain ethic groups appear to be more likely to commit crimes than others. He argued that the previously disadvantaged ethnic groups had a lot of ‘catching up’ to do (Wilson on Frontline). Wilson explained that being granted freedom was one thing, but dealing with the accumulation of disadvantages was quite another (Wilson on Frontline). He believed that some black Americans were still stuck in the old and unable to face the new world that was created for them. They had missed out on technological and social developments and therefore were handicapped in terms of having to learn aspects that white people had already grasped (Wilson on Frontline). We can use the stock exchange as an example: if someone has never learned about financial institutions and how they work, then it is impossible for them to make use of these facilities. While this is just an example, it can used to explain why some are more advanced than others. We need to add to this, what is termed social isolation and concentration effect. Concentration effect basically entails the concentration of certain economic and ethnic groups in certain areas, stunting their ability to become exposed to new ways of life (Wilson 1987 in Larsen).
Wilson identifies that those who are able to pull themselves out of the social rut do so, leaving the most disadvantaged behind. Brian Barry describes social isolation as the non-participation in mainstream activity (Barry, 2008). For this to happen, those that have a vested anger in the social system, willfully flout the norms and values and isolate themselves from the accepted norms in a public effort to show their sociability (Barry, 2008). When one person attempts to leave the area (for example Salem or New York slums), they are attacked and threatened by others, weighing down their chances of moving on.
The above are all reasons why there are possibly more offenders in one social or ethnic group than another, but does excludes the possibility that they are overrepresented. The ethnic group or minority group that is being attacked sometimes describe their experiences in this way: “When the cops see a group of Mexican kids together they think we’re a gang. You don’t need to be causin’ trouble or anything. They’ll stop you…They automatically assume that you’re guilty of something by the way you look.” – Imprisoned Chicano Youth (Revolutionary Worker # 975, 1998). This sentiment is shared by many incarcerated offenders who are of minority groups and the belief carries through in a number of case studies. Rene Landa is of Hispanic extraction and beliefs that her case was set up, she believes she was arrested initially for parole violations and drug charges. She asserts that she was firstly, not on parole at all and secondly; that her drug test came back clean. She had been arrested on drug charges previously, so it was already suspected. Despite this, when the charges were made, she says that a car tyre was brought in and she was charged with stealing it despite not ever having laid eyes on it before (Landa, FACTS, 2008). This means that from the beginning to the end, the charges and arrest were unfair. Whether or not this can be taken as absolute truth or not, remains to be proved but what it does do is outline the fear that perhaps certain minority groups are earmarked for arrest. Prison inmate, Dortell Williams writes about how he feels minority groups are treated by the criminal justice systems. He uses the example of a 23 year old Latino man who was shot dead when he attempted to escape the police. According to Williams, he was detained and patted down by the police when he made a dash and was shot during the process. He was free of contraband or weapons (Williams, FACTS, 2005). If the man did not possess drugs or weapons, why was he shot and furthermore, why did he attempt to escape? Since the ‘victim’ is deceased, he cannot either defend or refute what Williams has said. The sentiment however, does reflect more what the inmates and offenders feel, rather than what the general public feels about the problem.
There are many ways to look at this, but what we have learnt is that while there are those who believe the minority groups are wrongly represented and even overrepresented, there are explanations as to why there are more minority groups in prisons or as targeted. The media represents the minority groups in many ways that also allow us to believe that they are overrepresented. Certain films and television channels portray the standard black gangster, Hispanic drug dealer and white corporate crime formula. This is why stereotypical crime syndication is almost encouraged rather than stamped out. Representation in this case has a severe effect on the way in which not only the public but also the offenders themselves view the people they are. Despite the issues that present the argument that minority groups are overrepresented, it has to be recognized that crime is still crime and one is either guilty or not. There is a possibility that minorities are overrepresented, but it cannot be proved that they did not in fact commit crimes enough to make them that way. Added to this, the knowledge we have abut previously disadvantaged minorities, we can understand why more minority groups may in fact be involved in those crimes.
Using the information above, minority groups cannot be said to be overrepresented. In fact to say that they ARE would be making a judgment on very little empirical proof. Sociological studies on the other hand can explain the prevalence of minority group representation and is therefore a better explanation than merely saying that minority groups are overrepresented. The better side of the story is that with time, the gap between the advantaged and the previously disadvantaged will gradually diminish and the representation of offenders will also change demographically. One has to look at what the causes are in order to treat the symptoms.
Barry, B. 2008. “Social Exclusion, Social Isolation and the Distribution of Income” (http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/cp/Paper12.pdf)
Dortell Williams. November 2005. “Undeniably Disproportionate.” FACTS. http://facts1.live.radicaldesigns.org/article.php?id=960
FACTS. 2008. Rene Landa Statement. Conviction January 1995. http://facts1.live.radicaldesigns.org/article.php?id=166
Frontline (Wilson in an interview with Gates) (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/race/interviews/wilson.html)
PEW Center on the States. 2008. “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008.” http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/One%20in%20100.pdf
Revolutionary Worker # 975, 27 September 1998. “California: Fighting the Three Strikes Law.” Revolutionary Workers. http://revcom.us/a/v20/970-79/975/3-str.htm
Schultz Larsen, T. 1987. Outline of a reflexive sociology of neighbourhood effects , PhD-fellow, Roskilde University, Department of Society ; Globalization.