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No Racism in the Justice System

NCJ Number
The Public Interest Issue: 117 Dated: Fall 1994 Pages: 48-51
P A Langan
Date Published
4 pages

The criminal justice system has clearly been biased against blacks in the past, but recent evidence on such bias is far less conclusive.


Many studies have been conducted that show no bias in the arrest, prosecution, adjudication, and sentencing of blacks. At the same time, many other studies show possible evidence of bias. The consensus among criminologists is that available evidence of bias is not strong. Compared to legitimate factors affecting sentencing decisions, such as the defendant's prior record and offense seriousness, race appears to be only weakly related to whether a defendant is arrested, convicted, prosecuted, or sentenced severely. Moreover, criminologists are divided over how to interpret this weak relationship. Some believe it proves the existence of a small amount of bias in the criminal justice system, while others do not believe studies rule out the alternative explanation, that races differ on legal factors and these factors legitimately influence decisions of criminal justice system officials. The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a 1-year survey in which samples of adult felony defendants were tracked as their individual cases proceeded across major criminal justice stages. The survey was based on a sample of 10,226 defendants representing 42,538 defendants in the Nation's 75 largest counties. Survey findings revealed blacks were convicted of more serious offenses than whites, had longer criminal records, and were convicted in places that generally meted out more prison sentences. These differences explained why 51 percent of convicted blacks but only 38 percent of convicted whites were sent to prison. The survey provided no evidence that, in places where blacks had most of their contacts with the criminal justice system, the system treated them more harshly than whites.