April 09, 2020
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5 ways the criminal justice system discriminates

J. B. Forbes | MCT
J. B. Forbes | MCT
Protesters run when the police shoot tear gas on W. Florissant on Sunday afternoon in Ferguson, Missouri.

The fatal police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, has once again raised debate about minority treatment by police. Whether the shooting was overtly racially motivated or not, one doesn’t have to look far to see racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Michael Brown, 18, was one in a long line of black men shot at the hands of police and will not be the last. As the debate continues, here are five statistics to keep in mind.

Police shootings

It is difficult to compare the number of blacks versus whites killed by police because the federal database tracking police shootings is not complete. But in analyses of various cities, it seems police are disproportionately more likely to shoot at, and kill, a black person than a white person.

In New York City, for example, between 2000 and 2011, police killed or wounded 244 African-Americans, representing 63 percent of all shootings. African-Americans make up about 26 percent of the city’s population.


Black men are more likely to be jailed than white men, and the rate of their incarceration has increased since 1960.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis, black men in the U.S. were more than six times as likely as white men to be jailed in 2010. The incarceration rate for white men was 678 inmates per 100,000 white U.S. residents. For black men, it was 4,347.

In 1960, black men were five times as likely as white men to be incarcerated.

In Maine, the incarceration rate for black men, who make up a tiny fraction of the state’s population, is an astounding 7.6 times what it is for white men, according to the Sentencing Project.

Death penalty

When all other factors are constant, the single most reliable indication that a prisoner will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim. Even though African-Americans make up half of all homicide victims in the U.S., the overwhelming majority of people on death row were put there for killing white people.

A 2007 Yale University School of Law study found African-American defendants are three times as likely as white defendants to be sentenced to death in cases where the victims are white.

Drug arrests

White and black Americans use marijuana at the same rates, but African-Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession.


Many studies have shown that, overall, blacks receive longer sentences than whites in the same type of criminal situation. What’s more, judges are more likely to hand down harsher sentences to younger offenders than older offenders, to the unemployed more than the employed, and to men more than women.

“The confluence of these three factors results in young black males being sentenced particularly harshly,” according to the Sentencing Project.

In 2011, blacks made up 28.4 percent of all arrests, according to the FBI, and 13 percent of the overall population. Whites made up 69.2 percent of arrests and 78 percent of the population. Why shouldn’t minorities feel as if they receive disproportionate treatment in the criminal justice system? Whether it’s overt or not, data show they do.


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