Racial Conflict in the Criminal Justice System


23 Mar 2015 11 Dec 2017

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Racial conflict is defined as societal controversies related to variances in ethnic, cultural, or national affiliation. Specifically, racial conflict is the result of one dominant culture's control of differing cultures through economics, politics, social policy, and law. In the U.S. juvenile and criminal justice systems, the term racial conflict can be used to refer to discriminatory practices by those who work in the juvenile and criminal justice systems against minority persons (Akers & Sellers, 2004). Recent literature expanding the racial conflict concern to include U.S. policy, murder as the result of identity internalizations, and merchant-consumer relationships is not discussed here (Walker et al., 2004). Instead, this paper examines the literature depicting racial conflict as a systemic and controversial topic in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.


Historical accounts of violent racial conflict have existed since before the 1800s and up to the present day. Likewise, the relationship between racial conflict, crime, and minority processing has been examined (Baldus, & Woodworth, 1998). In addition to its explaining why some people commit crime, racial conflict has also been linked to disparate decision-making practices at both the arrest and the punishment stages for ethnic minorities. Specifically, African American males represent the most prevalent minority group at each of these stages. Empirical findings show that disproportionate minority confinement exists partly as the result of police discretion to arrest. Accordingly, minorities, particularly African Americans, find themselves at a disadvantage in the criminal justice system.

Recent accounts of racial conflict in the criminal justice system came to the fore during the 1992 riots after a verdict of not guilty was returned for the officers involved in the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, California. More recently, in 2005, racial conflict was linked to the government's response and policies after Hurricane Katrina in New orleans, Louisiana (Spohn, 2002). Specifically, victims of this natural disaster were outraged at the lack of governmental support and the assignment of the label "refugee" to American survivors in this largely minority populated area. To some, the use of the term refugee was symbolic of the perception that the survivors were "outsiders" to begin with. This was seized on by the national media, and the survivors were quickly recast as "evacuees."

Similar to disparities in the adult justice system, minority disparities in the juvenile justice system exist. Specifically, African American youth, similar to their adult counterparts, are disproportionately represented throughout the system. on one hand, criminologists argue that ethnic and racial minorities commit more crimes than their White counterparts and thereby have greater representation in the system. on the other hand, criminologists and sociologists argue that racial conflict in American society acts interchangeably with the law as a method to control minority power. Thus, as a result, disparities are found in arrest, charge, and confinement of African American youth when compared to White youth who commit the same serious and violent criminal acts. The larger implication here is consistent with the belief that racial conflict is supported and maintained by actors in the juvenile and criminal justice systems (Walker et al., 2004).

Racial Conflict and Justice

Research on the relationship between racial conflict and crime commission has examined interracial killings, economic and power competition, and disparities within the criminal justice system (Zatz, 2000). Racial conflict has been linked to delinquent behavior by juveniles and has been linked to school violence, juvenile homicide, gangs, theft, and other serious and violent crimes. one of the more engrossing questions facing criminologists and indeed our nation is whether the two justice systems are impartial. Criminologists have studied the relationship between judicial processes and discrimination, and some evidence suggests that ethnic minorities are overrepresented at arrest and, when compared to White offenders, are punished more severely. Similar results were found in examinations of pretrial processes where racial injustices in jury selection and judge bias against minorities were present.

Whether or not African Americans and other ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the criminal justice system is not a question here, as official data provide a clear depiction of this disparity (Spohn, 2002). The concern here is, however, focused on why racial disparities continue to exist in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The existence of conflicts between police and racial/ethnic minorities has historically been related to riots that are often the result of racial conflict. Many researchers argue that juvenile and adult processing of ethnic minorities as the result of racial conflict continues and is maintained by the continuous cycle of analyses, recommendations, and inaction that have resulted in ineffective identification and reduction of racial disparities. Contrary to this argument, other researchers point out that racial disparities exist largely as the result of serious and violent offending patterns of ethnic minorities.


The literature is filled with options for reducing racial conflict in the criminal justice system. The argument is made that to effectively address racial conflict, research should be conducted at each stage of processing so as to increase the level of accountability of officials and agencies within jurisdictions where racial disparities continue to exist. others stipulate that researchers must identify the problem, change and create policies that effectively address the real concerns, and implement and fund programs dependent upon evaluative measures.

At the theoretical level, many criminologists recognize that extensive changes within both the juvenile and the criminal justice systems are needed to address prejudices in the system that exist as the result of policies and practices. Hence, the argument of racial conflict and discrimination in the criminal justice system remains unresolved. Conflict theorists believe racial conflict is the reason for minority differences in criminal and even juvenile justice processing. Even so, differing arguments are presented stipulating that the empirical nature of racism is not measurable and thus is questionable. While there are two dominant opinions, it remains evident that many researchers hold the view that racial disparities as the result of racial conflict continue to exist and should be addressed in juvenile and criminal justice processing.


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