Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

by Joan R. Petersilia


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This study has three objectives: (1) to see if there is any evidence that the criminal justice system systematically treats minorities differently from whites; (2) if there is such evidence, to see whether that treatment represents discrimination or is simply a reaction to the extent and seriousness of minority crimes; and (3) to discuss the policy implications for correcting any bias. Prior research on discrimination in the criminal justice system has produced controversial and contradictory findings. Section II discusses the problems with this research and briefly describes the data and methodology. Section III describes the workings of the criminal justice system and identifies racial differences in case processing revealed in some of the data. Section IV analyzes more of the data for racial differences in crime commission rates and the probability of being arrested. Section V looks at racial differences following the imposition of a court sentence. Section VI explores racial differences in offender characteristics, specifically crime motivation, weapon use, and prison violence. Section VII summarizes the findings and presents the conclusions of the study.

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