Racial disparities have long been a topic of debate in the criminal justice field. The United States, in particular, has an imprisonment rate much greater than that of the rest of the world. Couple with that the gross disparity between the percentages of minorities (particularly African American and Latino) arrested and imprisoned, and the result is an alarming trend. According to Professor Pamela Oliver in the Department of Sociology at The University of Wisconsin Madison, about a third of African American men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, meaning that they are under some phase of judicial prosecution, imprisonment or post-imprisonment supervision. Research on the effect of the incarceration rates of minorities on their corresponding communities might be a viable option. Or, consider the exponential growth of greater use of incarceration, or stiffer penalties, for lesser crimes. A common example, is the uniformly harsher penalty for possession of crack cocaine versus cocaine, with the former associated more so with minority demographics and the latter with Caucasians. Simply searching for evidence of sentencing discrepancies within a student's own state may make for an intriguing project.
Crime and Mental Illness
Stereotypes and mental illness go hand in hand when dealing in the criminal justice system. An August 2007 Time Magazine article entitled De-Criminalizing Mental Illness noted that even law enforcement officials are guilty of this, referring to those with such conditions as "psycho," "freak" or "Jason from the horror movie." According to Miami counselor Habsi Kaba, these are the descriptions that police officers use when asked to describe people with mental illnesses. Stories abound of individuals who, in lacking the appropriate mental health treatment, have committed crimes, especially in the throes of hallucinations or psychosis. Ample research exists for those willing to delve further into this topic. On the other end of the spectrum, anyone interested in researching the existing treatments available once an individual with mental illness becomes a part of the criminal justice system will find that research exists on this as well. Both are topics worthy of student projects that could involve interviewing mental health practitioners, local law enforcement or criminals.
Juvenile Death Penalty
Juvenile sentencing is a controversial topic, especially when coupled with certain emotion-laden crimes. Instances of juveniles sentenced to life without parole, or in certain extreme cases, death, have formed the basis for fascinating research. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, in 2004, 71 individuals were on death row for juvenile crimes, making them about 2 percent of the total death row population. Texas, in particular, had the largest death row juvenile population, imprisoning a full 40 percent of the demographic, making it a fascinating target for research. Additionally, the Death Penalty Information Center makes a plethora of information available on the entirety of the group, including demographics of these juvenile offenders and case information by state. Student projects could range from searching for and quantifying any patterns within these cases to creating sound arguments for or against juvenile death sentencing.
- handcuffs image by Aleksandr Lobanov from Fotolia.com