Racial disparities in the criminal justice system

The U.S. Constitution requires every person in this country to be treated fairly in the justice system. When people are treated differently by the criminal justice system based on their race or ethnicity it undermines the important Constitutional principle of equal protection under law.

I recently held a hearing to consider how the criminal justice system, particularly prosecutors, can ensure that all people are treated fairly in the criminal justice system regardless of their race or ethnicity.

There are three points that we considered.

First, there is unfortunately evidence of racial disparities throughout our criminal justice system.

These disparities exist at every stage, beginning even before an individual is arrested and thereafter through probation and parole.

In the United States, prosecutors are empowered with a significant amount of discretion within the justice system and their actions can have life and death ramifications. They can decide whether to file criminal charges, the number and seriousness of the charges, whether to offer a plea bargain, and what sentence to recommend to the judge.

Yet, there is very little oversight or scrutiny of the discretion that prosecutors exercise.

Although in recent years law enforcement officials and judges have come under an increasing amount of oversight, prosecutors continue to have a great deal of independence.

I think it is time for the government to take a look at how prosecutors exercise their discretion to charge or to decline to charge a person with a crime.

Second, I share the concern expressed by many others that prosecutors use their discretion differently in cases involving African Americans and Latinos as opposed to how they make decisions in cases involving White defendants.

Issues about the fairness of and disparities in the criminal justice system have resulted in law enforcement agencies and the courts being subjected to a growing amount of external oversight.

For example, some police departments have come under the scrutiny of the Federal government because of patterns and practices of unacceptable behavior whereby African Americans and Hispanics are unfairly targeted for traffic stops and searches.

Some of the same concerns about disparities in sentencing have led both federal and some state legislators to create sentencing guidelines designed to limit the discretion of judges.

In the same way that law enforcement officials have begun to collect data about when they stop and arrest people, prosecutors should also be required to collect data about why they charge certain people with certain crimes and why they decline to do so in other cases.

Third, we need to collect data to document the extent of this problem. Despite the critical importance of prosecutorial decision-making in sentencing, the Sentencing Commission found that there is very little information available to examine these decisions.

So, the first step to determining whether prosecutors are contributing to racial disparities in the justice system is to require them to collect data about their cases and how they make decisions about cases they prosecute.

The next step is to require prosecutors to analyze and review this data to ensure that the decisions they make are fair even though the adversarial nature of the criminal justice system and prosecutors' emphasis on getting convictions may make it difficult for them to embrace this new level of scrutiny.

Judges and law enforcement officials have found oversight actually has many benefits, such as increased public support for their work and a better understanding of their role in the criminal justice system.

Prosecutors should also address any problems uncovered by the data and be prepared to change the way they conduct their work in response to these findings.

I look forward to analyzing the data compiled from the witnesses and hope this hearing will serve to further our important efforts to address the ongoing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.


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