Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Civil Rights and the Criminal Justice System

Picture this: After a night of drinking, you and a friend decide to drive home. You allow your drunk friend to drive and en route he hits a pole and the car rolls three times. Miraculously, you both are in decent condition and do not have any broken bones. Since you are more sober, you tell your friend to leave the scene so he will not get a DUI. Then, you walk to the gas station to call for help. While at the gas station, the police arrive, place you in handcuffs, and arrest you for drunk driving. Your friend arrives, admits to being the driver, and it not handcuffed or questioned further. Is this fair? I assume most of you would not believe this is fair. What if I had told you that you were an African American male and you friend, the driver, was a white male. Is this fair? Again, I assume most of you would agree that the treatment of the driver vs. the passenger is unfair and may even be racist. Why wouldn’t you handcuff the man who admitted to driving the car? Is it because he is white? Unfortunately, this true story is a prime example of what happens daily in our justice system. In hard facts, African Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites and populate 1 million of the 2.3 million individuals in jail (NAACP).

Similar to what Elizabeth said in her post entitled “The Long Civil Rights Movement,” racial inequality is still present and now reside in areas such as law and criminal justice. Although the laws are no longer as explicit as those during the Civil Rights Movement, there are still laws that are aimed to target African Americans. For example, in 1986 a federal law was put in place that penalized those in possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  In more specific terms, “A person must possess 500 grams of powder cocaine before they are subject to the same mandatory prison sentence as an individual who is convicted of possessing just 5 grams of crack cocaine (despite the fact that pharmacologically, these two drugs are identical)” (NAACP). Although this law may not seem to target African Americans it actually does. First, we must note that crack cocaine, since it is mixed with other chemicals, is cheaper and used more in lower economic classes. On the other hand, powder cocaine is more pure, more expensive, and is used in middle to upper economic classes. If we put this into terms of the federal law, a lower class individual who possesses 5 grams of crack cocaine and a middle class individual who possesses 100 times that of powder cocaine will be convicted equally. Seems economically biased, right?

Now get this - It turns out that 82% of individuals who were convicted under the crack cocaine law were African American even though authorities have estimated that 66% of crack cocaine users are white (NAACP). Now the federal law has become racially and economically biased. This law has had a devastating effect on African Americans rather than whites. This is for a majority of reasons such as economic status, racial profiling and more. Fortunately, the NAACP recognized the disparity in this law and, as of March 2010, has reduced the sentence of those found with crack cocaine. Although this is just one federal law (and a very short explanation of how it affects African Americans) it displays how the civil right movement has moved into institutions like the federal justice system. What do you all think of federal laws such as this one? Do you think they continue the cycle of racism?


  1. Great post, Kate. I absolutely agree that this and other similar laws allow for legally sanctioned racism. Like you said, this law directly targets the lower economic classes, which, as we know, are comprised mostly of minorities. More specifically, it seems to me that this law is state-sponsored racial profiling. If the state is aware of the implied economic discrepancies in the sentencing of possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine and 5 grams of crack cocaine, which I’d bet they are, this law may be a way to allow law enforcement officials to target specific groups of people based on neighborhood and socioeconomic status. The implicit bias in the law is just astounding to me, and I applaud the NAACP for bringing its racial disparities to light.

  2. Kate, this post is so great. I am infuriated by laws such as the one you mentioned. By implementing laws like this one, as well as others that are linked, in one way or another, to socioeconomic status, the law is able to continue racism legally. This makes it difficult, to say the least, to end discrimination. The most frustrating aspect of this is the fact that the law is instigating, or, rather, contenting, this ideology. Shouldn't the law protect people instead of hurt? I like to believe that one day our society will overcome this, but statistics that prove laws sanctioning legal racism make it difficult to have faith in that.

  3. I agree with you all on the fact that the laws on crack cocaine are created in order to provide prison cells with Blacks as a labor force and source of income. Something to think about is the fact that it is not simply the law that leads to the injustice but the unequal practice of targeting Blacks in low-income neighborhoods. The police force's common practice is stopping people who look "suspicious" searching them unfairly which causes thus causes a continued cycle of Black incarceration. The legal system is intentionally discriminatory and repressive on every level from the creation of the laws to the enforcement of the laws.