Systemic racism has been a part of the culture and governmental structure of the United States since its inception. From the ratification of the Constitution in 1787 until the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1864 during the Civil War, the enslavement of Africans and their descendants was legal in southern states. The racial disparity established in American culture during the antebellum period when African Americans were considered property in a large part of the country has persisted in various forms to the present day. Despite progress in the passage and enforcement of laws guaranteeing equal rights for all racial groups in the United States starting in the 1950s, bias based on race persists in American society. Perhaps one of the most evident and consequential effects of the racial bias that is part of the American system of government may be found in the unequal treatment of African Americans by the criminal justice system. The percentage of African Americans incarcerated in the United States is significantly higher than that of white citizens on a per capita basis. This is based, in part, on differences in the rates of arrest and conviction and the severity of sentences between the two groups. An analysis of the reasons behind this disparity provide insight into why so many more African Americans are imprisoned than their white counterparts, and how the criminal justice system can address this unjust situation.

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The United States has the most extensive criminal justice in the world, and has one of the top rates of incarceration. As of 2015, almost seven million individuals are under some type of supervision by a criminal justice agency, and over two million individuals are in prison or jail (The Sentencing Project, p. 1). The overall rate of incarceration in the United States began to rise at a rapid rate in the 1980s with the passage of strict laws against the use and distribution of illegal drugs. The use of crack cocaine, a cheap and smokable form of the drug, reached epidemic levels in many urban areas. As with any substance abuse epidemic, crime rates and health problems increased in tandem with the drug use. In reaction to this crisis, legislators and law enforcement professionals passed and enforced stricter and more punitive laws regarding drug offences. In African American communities, many black leaders advocated for and supported these laws in the hope that they would make their neighborhoods more safe. Although the motivation behind this ‘War on Drugs’ was to lower crime rates and increase the quality of life in these communities, the strategy made many in the African American community feel that they were being unfairly targeted by the criminal justice system. Sentencing for the distribution of crack, which was most popular among African American users, was up to one hundred times the length of sentencing for the distribution of powder cocaine, which was more popular with white users. In addition, the radical increase in arrests and incarceration did not succeed in lowering crime rates, as incarcerated individuals usually return to their home community after being released, and incarceration often exacerbates criminal behavior rather than rehabilitating prisoners (Crutchfield & Weeks).

African Americans make up approximately 13% of the population of the United States, but as of 2016, they comprised 27% of arrestees. They are imprisoned more than five times as frequently as whites for similar offenses (NAACP). The bias against African Americans is particularly evident in arrest rates for drug violations. Even though African Americans and whites use drugs at roughly the same rate, African Americans are arrested at significantly higher rates. Data from 2015 indicate that more than 25% of individuals detained for drug violations were African American. In 2010, a study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that African Americans were almost four times as likely to be apprehended for the possession of marijuana as their white counterparts despite the fact that both groups use the drug at a similar rate (The Sentencing Project, pp. 3-4). The racial disparity in incarceration rates is a long term problem that is not being addressed by current criminal justice methods.

While high rates of incarceration have some benefits for high risk communities by removing dangerous individuals, but this strategy has collateral problems. Incarceration alienates the perpetrator from family and friends, separating him or her from potentially positive influences, and possibly creates a stressful situation for those left behind. Another issue is the reentry of the individual into the community upon their release. Mental health and substance abuse services are generally poor in American prisons, and newly released inmates returning to their old neighborhoods are often at risk of reoffending within a relatively short time. Ex-convicts also are not eligible for many government-sponsored services such as subsidized housing and welfare benefits making successful reintegration to society much more difficult (Crutchfield & Weeks).

The issue of racial bias in the American criminal justice system has recently begun to attract the attention of the public, and pressure for reforms to eliminate this systemic bias is growing. Police officers need to be trained to avoid bias when dealing with citizens, and sentencing procedures need to be reformed. The severely punitive laws that were instituted in the 1980s and 1990s should be reviewed and many need to be changed, as they support a bias against people of color. Now that most of American society openly recognizes the injustice inherent in the criminal justice system, it is time to address it and modify it for the benefit of all citizens.

  • Crutchfield, R.D. & Weeks, G.A. (2015). The effects of mass incarceration on communities of color. Issues in Science and Technology, 32(1). Retrieved from
  • The Sentencing Project. (2018). Report to the United Nations on racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Retrieved from