Letter to the Editor, Half-truths and False Equivalences: Understanding the Role of Race in the Criminal Justice System

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement is not a hate group nor should it be equated with one. The organization was created in response to the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and has since evolved from a popular social media hashtag to a thriving civil rights organization with 38 independent locally established chapters and one international branch. Its main mission is to promote the humanization of Black people, recognize their contributions to society, and combat state violence perpetrated against people of color. State violence is inflicted in numerous ways—not just through violent acts carried out by state police—and is maintained through institutional racism. “Racism” is an evocative word and being labeled a racist in today’s culture is a serious accusation. So, let us be clear on what we mean by institutional racism. When we refer to institutional racism it does not mean that all individuals working within a particular system are inherently racist; instead, the institutional structure itself is organized in a way that perpetuates inequality through discriminatory practices. Given the nature of its formation, the BLM Movement is often credited for highlighting discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system, pointing to the experiences of African Americans with law enforcement, the judicial system, and the correctional system. But, are these grievances and critiques of the criminal justice system real? Do we have cause to believe that African Americans are being treated characteristically different by the criminal justice system in comparison to other groups? Or have we let the images of Black men and women dying at the hands of state officers cloud our judgement of reality? Fortunately, these are empirical questions that have been examined scientifically for over three decades.

Beginning with policing research, some studies suggest that, compared to Whites, Blacks are stopped, searched, ticketed, and arrested at significantly higher rates. For example, a 2015 study on drug use and drug arrests found that African Americans, were “no more, and often less, likely to be involved in drug offending than Whites,” however, Blacks were 235 percent (or 2.35 times) more likely to be arrested for these offenses. Similar racial disparities are found across court processing. A 2014 study found that Blacks are 30 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison. Moreover, a study conducted by a Sam Houston State University criminal justice professor found that African Americans receive significantly longer sentences for the exact same crime committed by Whites (5.1 percent longer sentence). Given these research findings, it should come as no surprise that Blacks are also disproportionately represented in our nation’s jails and prisons. Recent estimates suggest that African Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the US population but represent approximately 37 percent of the male prison population.  According to a 2015 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, the imprisonment rates of young Black males (age 18-19) were 10 times higher compared to young White males.  At this rate, 1 in every 3 Black males born in 2013 can expect to spend at least some amount of time behind bars during their lifetime–only 1 in every 17 White males can expect the same.  In short, research shows that the BLM Movement concerns over racial bias and unequal treatment by the CJ system are not only legitimate, but are shocking for those who expect fair and equal treatment regardless of race.

Some may argue that these disparities reflect the inherent criminality among people of color. These people may suggest that African Americans commit more crime so they are more likely to encounter agents of the criminal justice system, subsequently increasing their rates of

arrest and incarceration. If only it were that simple. Arrest rates do not adequately represent rates of offending for several reasons. First, a substantial amount of crime goes unreported to police officers. As a result, arrest data only represent crimes that result in this specific law enforcement response. When self-report data is considered (i.e., asking people about their offending behavior), the gap in offending between Blacks and Whites closes significantly. Second, patterns of arrest often reflect departmental resources and specific concerns of individual law enforcement agencies. For example, if a police department has a policy to actively pursue drug crimes, the rates of arrest for this crime will likely increase. This does not imply an increase in the actual occurrence of drug-related crimes. Instead, arrest increases are a result of officers paying more attention to these crimes because they’ve been directed to do so. Finally, broad departmental policing strategies also influence rates of arrest. If a department actively engages in highly aggressive, order maintenance forms of policing, they are more likely to come into contact with citizens. This increases the potential for arrest. Important to the current discussion, these types of strategies are often used to police minority communities, which can affect the rates of arrest among these groups. Therefore, it is imperative that we acknowledge that rates of arrest cannot fully be understood without taking into consideration criminal justice processes.

To echo the article in The Houstonian that motivated this letter, truth does indeed matter and denying the truth doesn’t change the facts. It is relatively easy to create narratives that fit individual perspectives. In doing so, we can feel safe in our worldview because we don’t have to challenge our belief systems and the narrow realities we know. That may be sufficient for those outside the university, but as students actively engaged in critical thinking, we are called to a higher standard. During our tenure as students at SHSU, we will undoubtedly be exposed to differing viewpoints. Instead of arbitrarily dismissing these viewpoints, we should take the time to understand them. At the same time, we should remember that our perspectives are often derived from personal experiences, which may not generalize to society more broadly. Therefore, it is important to rely on scientific knowledge, when available, to inform our opinions. If you are interested in learning more about criminal justice issues, feel free to visit the George J. Beto Criminal Justice Center were you can solicit unbiased and professional answers based on the current state of evidence to any questions you may have.

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