The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked worldwide protests and civil unrest over police brutality, racial inequities and the need for criminal justice reform. This incident has caught the public’s attention on a much broader scale than ever before.
Yet racial disparities and police violence against minority populations are nothing new. Systemic reform is necessary to fully address these issues. But individuals can also make a difference.
Criminal justice professionals can confront racial injustice in their departments, court systems and communities. In Lamar University’s Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice online degree program, students explore ethics and current issues in criminal justice. Graduates of the program emerge prepared to play important roles in reforming the American criminal justice system from within.
What Kinds of Racial Disparities Exist in the Criminal Justice System?
The statistics surrounding racial inequities in law enforcement and police brutality are staggering. The following facts highlight the degree of disparity at work today:
- One in every 1,000 black men is killed by police.
- Black men are roughly 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.
- Black women, Native American men and women and Latino men also face a higher risk of being killed by police than their white peers.
As for incarceration, the Sentencing Project’s 2019 Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System notes that:
- Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men.
- One in three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime.
- Latino men are over twice as likely to be incarcerated as white men.
- People of color account for 37% of the entire U.S. population yet make up 67% of the prison population.
(Note: The U.S. population has grown even more diverse since this data was recorded, meaning current statistics may have changed.)
Overall, the report concluded that “African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences.”
The Sentencing Project’s report is careful to point out that “the source of such disparities is deeper and more systemic than explicit racial discrimination.” Biases in pretrial detention, biased use of discretion in prosecution and sentencing as well as biased policies that disadvantage people of color and poor people intersect and compound systemic disparities in criminal justice.
What Efforts Are Addressing These Inequities?
The recent protests and ongoing movements for racial justice like Black Lives Matter are starting to drive mainstream public opinion on criminal justice reform. Yet concepts of what reform should look like vary among different groups.
Some are calling for “defunding the police,” but people interpret that concept differently. In essence, the idea is to divert money from police forces to fund community health and safety services, which can respond to many situations more safely, equitably and appropriately than traditional law enforcement. In this manner, the City Council of Minneapolis recently voted to abolish its police force and replace it with a “holistic” public safety force.
Camden, New Jersey dismantled its police force in 2012, rebuilding it from the ground up with a focus on progressive police reform and community involvement. The years since have seen drastic reduction in the city’s excessive use of force rates and homicide rates alike.
Other efforts to reform policing include steps like the following:
- Creating stringent guidelines on use of force (i.e. banning chokeholds)
- Limiting the ability to invoke qualified immunity for police officers in cases of excessive force
- Prohibiting the militarization of law enforcement
- Instituting implicit bias and aggression screening and conducting anti-bias training
- Disincentivizing arrests, ticketing, etc.
Efforts to reform judicial aspects of the criminal justice system focus on the following:
- Eliminating biased policies
- Creating alternatives to incarceration
- Promoting community safety and restorative justice over incarceration
- Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences
- Reducing economic bias in pretrial detention (cash bail)
- Ending incarceration for low-level drug offenders
- Providing equitable funding and reduced caseloads for public defenders
How Can a Criminal Justice Degree Help Me Effect Change?
By studying criminal law, the judicial system, policing practices and ethics, criminal justice majors can develop a deep understanding of the choices and discretions they have on the job and the long-term effects of the choices they make.
Instead of arresting someone for a low-level, nonviolent offense, a police officer could engage that person with appropriate community health services. A law enforcement professional can choose to step back from a volatile situation, consider options, de-escalate that situation and redirect it toward the best possible outcome for all involved.
Officers should also hold their peers accountable. This means intervening if a fellow officer is about to step out of line. It also means proactively helping peers understand and deconstruct their own inherent biases, preventing potential racially charged incidents.
Plus, with a bachelor’s in criminal justice, a law enforcement professional can ascend through the ranks of leadership, increasing their capacity to push reform. One could also go on to earn a law degree and work as a public defender or policymaker, further magnifying one’s impact.
Bringing about change comes down to people educating themselves, making well-informed decisions and taking action. By studying criminal justice, law enforcement professionals can develop the knowledge and skills necessary to do this hard work, promoting racial justice in policing at both the individual and systemic levels.