A society's criminal justice system is made up of institutions and practices that are aimed at deterring crime, maintaining social control, and both punishing and rehabilitating individuals who commit crimes. In the U.S., the criminal justice system is designed to give every criminal defendant fair treatment. However, the weaknesses of the criminal justice system, which includes racial and socioeconomic bias, can undermine this ideal of fairness.
In certain areas of the U.S., particularly in the big cities, the criminal justice system is in danger of being overwhelmed by the volume of legal cases with which to be dealt. In his 2006 memoir, "Indefensible," public defender David Feige describes the overworked, overwhelmed criminal justice system operating in the Bronx, New York. Due to time pressure, an individual's public defender may not be sufficiently prepared to represent the client's interests, and judges' rulings may be arbitrary as they attempt to deal with a large number of hearings in the shortest time possible. The fairness and rationality of the criminal justice system are often undermined by the fact that the system is heavily burdened in terms of sheer numbers.
The criminal justice system is biased against individuals of lower socioeconomic status. As argued by Jeffrey Reiman in his 2006 book "The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice," the current justice system is significantly biased against poor people. Reiman points out that the crimes more typically committed by poor people are punished with greater harshness and longer prison sentences than those of executive or corporate criminals. White-collar crimes, such as environmental pollution by corporations, or the refusal to make workplaces safe, are more typically punished with a fine than a custodial sentence. Therefore, rich or corporate criminals often get away with breaking the law, whereas a poor individual is much more likely to feel the full force of the criminal justice system for a crime with less overall impact on society.
The criminal justice system is biased in its treatment of nonwhite defendants. This systemic racial bias was identified in a 2000 report issued by the National Institute of Corrections. The report calls the treatment of black and Latino individuals by U.S. courts and police authorities "massively and pervasively biased." Such racial bias occurs at every stage of the criminal justice process, from arrest to sentencing. Blacks, Latinos and other minorities are frequently subject to racial profiling, unfair police targeting, biased decisions regarding criminal charges and plea bargains, and discriminatory sentencing decisions. For example, the NIC report notes that from the start of 1995 to the end of 1997, 70 percent of traffic stops by Maryland State Police on Interstate 95 involved black drivers, although only 17.5 percent that area's drivers--and speeders--were black. This example is one of many ways in which the criminal justice system shows racial bias.
- "Indefensible"; David Feige; 2006
- The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Student Resources
- Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice 8th Edition"; Jeffrey Reiman; 2006
- Justice on Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System
- gavel image by Cora Reed from Fotolia.com