Is The Criminal Justice System Is Institutionaly Racist 

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Dating back to the 1960s UK antagonizing immigrants, or even since the slave trade was abolished, institutional racism has been an existing, developing, and prevalent force within the criminal justice system. The MacPherson Inquiry (1999), which examined the original Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence, presents a definition that can be applied to the modern era. If an institution or collective organization dedicated to the public fails to serve based on discrimination derived from ethnic origin, color, or culture, then that is Institutional Racism. According to Macpherson, this can be seen and or felt in processes, and behaviors that equate to prejudice, ignorance, and stereotyping that ultimately disadvantages ethnic minorities.

Before delving into the details and arguments as to why Institutional Racism remains relevant to this day, we must first clarify some key terms regarding the issue; race, ethnicity, and racism. It has been posited by scholar E.N Glenn (1999) that race was and is a social construct, despite the claim that it is a scientific category. This could be evidenced by the changing definition of whiteness post-immigration, with the definition having assimilated groups that would’ve been considered outsiders to such a group in an earlier period, such as those of Jewish or Irish descent. This fact in itself should display how on the offset, notions of racial difference had always been grounded in power and privilege; especially when applied to the Criminal Justice System. Consider the founder of criminology, Lombroso (1884; 1897), had suggested how homicide rates among African Americans in the USA emerged from primitivism, brutalism, etc. all these traits grounded in biological makeup. Of course, this notion has been debunked and in the modern day is discredited as upholding racist ideologies.

That is to say, not all modern literature is fully willing to discredit racist beliefs. The Bell Curve, written by Hernnstein and Murray (1994) posited that differences in hereditary IQ were predictors of involvement in the crime. More specifically, it had targeted African Americans, suggesting the group held inferior intelligence compared to White Americans. The Bell Curve has since been critiqued and undermined since its release, but we must acknowledge how criminology would have a history of reinforcing notions of racial differences, and how that may bleed into the Criminal Justice System. It is important to understand, however, that racism is not always overt or conscious. Racism within the criminal justice system may not be purely based on hatred and discrimination, but unconscious or not, the racism against minorities within the system must be addressed.

Unlike race, which is socially constructed, ethnicity is considered the biological basis of racial differences. It refers to the collectives of people who hold a common origin that is connected in language, religion, nationality, or traditions - in short, culture. Through these methods, social groups can distinguish themselves from one other (Stuart, 2004). In recent times, however, ethnicity is based on self-categorization and social identity and is therefore fluid - evolving over some time (Bhopal, 2004). Akin to how race and the perceptions of such may impact criminology, ethnicity is also demonstrated to impact sentencing in the criminal justice system.

Ethnic minorities are discriminated against within the Criminal Justice System, and several empirical studies demonstrate this. Within the states of California, Michigan, and Texas, it was found that Hispanics and blacks were given harsher, and longer sentences when compared to whites. This was even when considering how both the experimental group (Hispanics and blacks) and the baseline sample (whites) held similar criminal records and had committed similar felonies such as drug usage or assault. Petersilla (1985) suggests that this may be because of perceived recidivism rates within minorities -- as indicated by the overrepresentation of minorities serving time in prison. However, Petersilla also argues that this may not be because the system is prejudiced towards minorities, but instead institutional racism within the justice system is symptomatic of how society itself holds racial problems.

That being said, the criminal justice system is still an essential component of society; holding considerable influence when it comes to the incarceration of criminals. The Criminal Justice System is still part of the problem when it comes to society being considered racist, as it perpetuates the stereotype of people of color and minorities being seen as more criminally prone than Caucasians.

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An analysis of sentencing outcomes across Pennsylvania between the years 1989 and 1992 found two details relating to race within the criminal justice system. Firstly, that race was considered the most influential factor in the sentencing of a young male. More specifically - and the second detail, is that young black males were more harshly sentenced than any other group. As evidenced by this, it is unquestionable that people of the color struggle for equal treatment within the criminal justice system.

Institutional racism most definitely exists within the UK Criminal Justice System as well. This can be measured and demonstrated via the public's response to its unjustness. More specifically, with the outrage of Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1999, as well as the Brixton Riots in 1980.

Dubbed Bloody Saturday by the Time, the Brixton Riots had occurred as a reaction to growing racial tensions between the African-Caribbean community and police forces. Following this, the Scarman Report (1981) was commissioned to comprehend the cause of the riots, and the failures of the police. It was concluded in the report that police forces had become too removed from their communities and how citizens should’ve had, and should have more input into policy making. It was also decided that police tactics should be more sensitive towards the ever-growing cultural, non-white population within Britain's cities. As demonstrated through Scarman's analysis of the riots and understanding of the causes, societal prejudices and racism bled into the treatment of minorities within the criminal justice system, which in turn bred the unrest within Brixton.

Despite this, though he had criticized the ‘oppressive policing’ of the police force, Scarman (1981) repudiated the notion that institutional racism and systematic discrimination did not exist in Britain. Instead, Scarman argued how the problem was beyond police-related issues and went on further to state how the riots were framed by ‘the social and economic disadvantages’ related to blacks. While reforms were attempted based on Scarman’s report, none were truly effective. Whether Scarman intended to or not, the report published may have affected future judgments for Afro-Caribbean individuals who would be involved in crime. More specifically, by suggesting that protest was characteristic of afro-Caribbean culture. This was evidenced in how political statements at the time focused more on the violence of the riots and blamed families for failing to discipline their young - suggestively blaming culture and ethnic background for the riots. As demonstrated through this antagonization of minorities, we can see how the Criminal Justice System fails people of color in bringing proper reform, and even in acknowledgment of the system’s failures of cultural sensitivity.

Even so, it can be argued that following the riots of the 1980s, reform was still attempted - in the form of the Police and Criminal Evidence act of 1984 (also known as the PACE). This act took away the responsibility of deciding prosecution away from the police, and to the independent Crown Prosecution Service. Despite this, the PACE act had also given police the power to stop and search anyone based on suspicion. Though, all police searches must record the ethnicity of any person they stop and search, with all 43 forces in England following this rule since 1996. Even so, the use of stop and search is arguably abused and susceptible to profiling, as evidence has demonstrated how police tend to use stop and search activity in areas in which there is a large number of minority ethnics residing. Data has also shown that out of any other race in Britain, a black person is six or seven times more likely to be stopped. Furthermore, there is evidence arguing that stop and search tactics -on top of being mostly ineffective, have criminalized minorities; deepening mistrust between the police and ethnic minorities. Once again, attempts to reform an already inherently yet mostly unpurposely racist criminal justice system have tried and arguably failed the minorities they had tried to help.

The murder of Stephen Lawrence was arguably a flashpoint in regards to the tension regarding police and ethnic minorities, with the publishing of the MacPherson report (1999). His death, a culmination of racial abuse followed by stabbing, had brought issues of racist violence and police racism to the top of the political agenda. The inquiry itself was established in 1997 and reported in 1999. Macpherson had written several errors in the handling of Stephen Lawrence’s death that was indicative of institutional racism. To quote, the investigation was ‘marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism, and a failure of leadership by senior officers. Thanks to the list of evidence provided by MacPherson, we can gather how the criminal justice system is institutionally racist towards minorities, and how it can harm them.

Research after the inquiry was published has suggested the absence of overt racism in recent decades. However, there is an argument to be made that more subtle forms of discrimination have found their place. Minority ethnic officers have expressed some concerns about how this could lead to unequal treatment of people of color within the criminal justice system. As such, minorities are arguably still left vulnerable in an allegedly reformed system. Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest an underrepresentation of minority ethnic officers within the metropolitan police; making up only 6% in 2014, with little representation within senior ranks. With little representation of ethnic minority populations within the criminal justice system, there would be a perception of unfairness, or perhaps even tokenism within police forces. As such, the issue of mistrust between minorities and police is not fully addressed, despite Stephen Lawrence’s death is a consequence of such.

Contemporarily speaking, the issue of institutional racism within the criminal justice system is still ongoing. In 2014 alone, Phillips and Bowling (2017) found evidence describing such. They found how black people in England and Wales were five times more likely to be subjected to stop and search procedures, with ethnic minority populations comprising 11% to 6% of the prison population. There is also a suggestion of police bias, with ethnic minorities being more likely to have a case terminated by the Crown Protection Service. Institutional racism persists even in the modern day despite the attempts to reform it in the past. Further damning is how even to this day, the introduction of stop and search via PACE is contentious amongst the public and is argued to not aid in the improvement of ethnic minority treatment.

Throughout this paper, it has been made clear that while attempts are made to improve the criminal justice system, said improvements barely affect the poor treatment of ethnic minorities. The fact that racism within the system has been embedded since the criminalization and decriminalization of non-white immigrants would of course be an obstacle in viewing ethnic minorities as holding the same rights as Caucasians. In conclusion, it would be difficult to sanitize the criminal justice system of institutional racism, without acknowledging that the Criminal Justice System isn’t a monolith actively targeting ethnic minorities, but several individuals who simultaneously can and cannot be held accountable for the antagonization of vulnerable populations, but contribute to the criminal justice system being institutionally racist. 

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