Lack of people of Color in The Criminal Justice System
By Troi Patrick
In the United States, African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population. Despite being a minority in this country, African Americans are the majority of the population in American prisons. Thirty-three percent of the inmate population is African American. There is a long and extensive road to indictment in which judges, lawyers and even jurors - 60 percent of whom identify as white, and who are mostly men - contribute to the outcome of sentencing.
In June 2020, ABC7 Detroit reported an attorney, Dalen Hanna, made a slew of racist statements via Facebook. Here we have someone responsible for defending or sentencing people of color who publicly espouses racist views. A lack of diversity and representation among the people who hold positions of power in the criminal justice system directly affect sentencing outcomes. Eric Vincent, who replied to Hanna on the Facebook post, said, “This is somebody who’s supposed to be serving the people, helping the people of America. And when you hear things like that, that validates the disconnect that Black people have with the justice system.” That disconnect also makes it very hard for African Americans to apply to and feel accepted in law schools.
Organizations like the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the National Black Pre-law Conference encourage young Black people to strive for success and succeed in all areas of education. Organizations like these were created because of the absence of Black bodies in positions of power and lack of representation in certain fields of work. The work that they are doing is helping many Black teens and young adults see that it is possible to obtain careers in criminal justice.
Not only are they showing that it is attainable, but also that it is important to help reform the system. If for example, a case involved a Black person who was motivated to commit a crime because of their unique circumstances and culture, having an all white courtroom by which to judge their actions could be detrimental to them. Likely no one in that courtroom came from a similar background or understands the culture in which that person comes from; yet, their inability to understand them could affect the entire case. Attorney A. Nicole Phillips highlighted the importance of understanding culture even in an investigation of a crime. Phillips is a part of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and works in the Philadelphia area.
She pointed out that sometimes even the lack of understanding of dialect and vernacular can impact a case. “If you’re not really understanding or trying to understand the backgrounds of individuals, then you’re not going to get a full picture of what’s going on in the case to understand what is the right resolution to the case - or even sometimes how to view the evidence and the circumstances of the case,” she said.
African American vernacular English is a dialect that is spoken across the Black diaspora and sometimes can be hard to understand for people who aren’t familiar with it. Phillips recounted times where a colleague was confused about a statement seen in evidence that included this dialect.
Phillips as an African American woman was able to provide clarity to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to decipher a certain language. Further proving that it is not simply just about the need for racial diversity in the criminal justice system but differences in background, perspective and skill set.
Over the years, while African American enrollment in law school has increased, they still make up a small population of ABA law schools. Only 7.9 percent of law school students are African American, 6.3 percent are Asian, 12.7 percent are Hispanic and less than 1 percent are Native American or Hawaiian. Over 63 percent are white. In addition, Hispanic and African American students are disproportionately enrolled in lower-ranked law schools. They also have lower bar passage and post-graduation employment rates. Representation is important so that people of color feel encouraged to occupy more positions of power in the criminal justice system, and our system can reflect the communities in which they serve.