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Racial Disparity in Sentencing

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Racial disparity in sentencing

In today's criminal justice system racial disparity is one of many problematic issues that need to be addressed. Many people want to believe or pretend that this problem does not exist, and they would rather do nothing to reduce it. Moreover, the problem is significant, and it can be proven. Many researches have been done over the years to prove that the problem of racial disparity in sentencing exists and that it can be reduced by taking proper steps.

According to Bruce (2001) "racial disparity in the criminal justice system exists when the proportion of a racial or ethnic group within the control of the system is greater than the proportion of such groups in the general population" (p. 1). Simply, racial disparity is a result of dissimilar treatment of similarly situated individuals where the only difference between them is a race.

Racial disparity is a known occurrence in sentencing. As Kansal (2005) stated "racial discrimination in sentencing today is often a more surreptitious process, manifesting itself in connection with other factors and producing racially discriminatory outcomes in certain situations" (p. 1). Many reasons of racial disparity in sentencing have been discussed over the years, and will continue to be discussed until the issue is resolved. The causes of racial disparity in sentencing are varied. These causes include jury selection, racism by jurors, prosecutorial discretion, and ineffective defense attorney representation.

The first reason for racial disparity in sentencing is caused by jury selection. During jury selection process potential jurors need to answer variety of questions. The answers to these questions are the deciding factor whether person will be excluded from the jury or not. The questioning is based on Witherspoon method. According to this method, those who would never be willing to impose death penalty or those who would always vote for death penalty after capital conviction will be automatically excluded from the jury. According to Tabak (1999) "questioning, conducted before the guilt or innocence phase of the trial, disproportionately leads to exclusion of African Americans, because a higher percentage of African Americans oppose the death penalty compared to the general public" (p. 6). As a result of African Americans elimination from the jury, the jury in cases that involve African American defendants is composed of mostly white jurors.

The second reason is caused by juror's racism believes. Racially biased jurors will most likely make their verdict decisions based on the race of the defendant. For example, white jurors may be biased against Black people, and they will do anything to sent Black defendant to prison even if he or she did not commit the crime. The problem arises when juror's racism is not discovered during the jury selection initial questioning. Potential jurors may mask their true racism and reveal it during jury deliberation process.

The third reason for racial disparity in sentencing is caused by prosecutorial discretion. Prosecutorial discretion cause is seen mainly in capital sentencing. Taking California and New York as an example, in these states any intentional murder committed during the course of a felony, and the intent to commit murder can be sought for a death penalty (Tabak, 1999). As a result of this right prosecutors have enormous discretion in determining whether to seek death or not. In California about 20% out of all homicides involve a felony, which ranges between 600-800 cases a year. Currently California has 648 prisoners sentenced to the death penalty and waiting for execution on death row. Even though Blacks only make up 12% of American population there are 233 of them on the death row. In comparison to 251 Whites, 130 Latinos, 14 Native Americans and 20 Asians, Blacks make up 36% of all prisoners on the death row. In addition, 61% out of all death row prisoners are minorities. Presented numbers prove that racial disparity in sentencing exists.

The last cause of racial disparity in sentencing is inequitable access to resources can result in very different outcomes between poverty and rich individuals. Colored people are more likely live in poverty. That means that they do not have as easy access to resources as individuals with higher income. Poor individuals more likely will not be able to afford private attorney, and they will have to stick with the court appointed attorney. Generally, the limited access to private attorney by low income defendants is a vast disadvantage that is the cause why minority defendants receive harsher sentences.

Racial disparity in sentencing is an issue in American criminal justice system. Many people whether working within the criminal justice system or not are aware of the racial disparity problem, and want to do something to



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