Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System

The year has been a tragic and visceral reminder that the Black American experience comes with an added cost. As the energy of progress starts to move the machinery of government, the conversation has quickly turned to a defining of what exactly the problem is.

The focus of that discussion is around the implicit or systemic racial bias in our criminal justice system. Statistics are how we try to make sense of what that means.

And everyone has their statistics. Some people on the Left would point to stats like: how Stop-and-Frisk policing disproportionately targets Black and Hispanic Americans or how Black Americans are disproportionately represented in prisons and in drug arrests. And there’re resources, like Ava Duverney’s Netflix documentary, 13th, which you can watch on YouTube for free right now, that give helpful context for those Statistics.

But a common critique for some of these stats are “Hey! You didn’t control for other non-racial causes.” They might phrase it like this “What you’ve pointed out is a disparity between Black and White Americans; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s discrimination or racial bias against Black Americans.”

The stats we’ll talk about for this video will consider all sorts of variables. They account for crimes that were committed, poverty, education, age, mental health... the list goes on. We’ll look at stats that cut through the disparity and give us a glimpse at the underlying discrimination, or racial bias.


As we start to move through the criminal justice process, we start to see the disparities pretty early on.

We see it in traffic stops. A report showed that Black motorists in California were about twice as likely to be pulled over for “Reasonable Suspicion” Investigatory Stops for fitting the description of a suspect, which aren’t prompted by an observed crime or moving violation. So, you might assume that if Black motorists get pulled over more often, it’s because they speed or roll through stop signs more often, but this stat only looks at motorist pulled over without having committed an observable violation.

That fact would help explain why Black motorists in the US are about twice as likely as White motorists to be pulled over without being told why.

And even with racial bias appearing in traffic data, I find the most compelling evidence of racial bias comes from the testimonies of our Black countrymen and women.

Tim Scott, the Republican Senator from South Carolina, shared of his experience with racial profiling and mentioned that there was a single year during his time as an elected official where he was pulled over FIVE TIMES for "driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or something else just as trivial."

Those testimonies are, again, backed up by D.O.J. surveys.

A 2014 study showed increased symptoms of anxiety associated with increased number of Police stops. And so it’s easy for me to say, “Listen, when you get pulled over by the Police, keep your cool, be respectful, no quick movements, “ but I haven’t been pulled over 7 times in a decade let alone a year!


When it comes to police searches, you’ll find one of the most well-established patterns in Policing: Black people are more likely to be searched by Police, but those searches of Black people are less likely to uncover contraband or drugs.

This is known as the 'contraband test.' If Black civilians are less likely to carry contraband, and they get searched more often, racial bias is creating a less efficient police force. This study has been recreated time after time by team after team.

Black Americans simply get Wrongfully searched more than white Americans.


As well-established as the statistics on searches is that of arrests. A Black American is more likely than a White American to be arrested for drug charges while each group uses drugs at similar rates. So, even when racial groups commit crimes at equal levels, Black Americans are more likely to be caught. Which is, no doubt, due to the racial bias that we’ve seen up to this point in the criminal justice process. There’s an example of what this looks like in a Vice News video, and also most of us are probably aware of Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard Professor, who was arrested for trying to get into his own home whose front door was jammed.


When it comes to prosecutors bringing charges to a suspect; there’s an unexplainable racial disparity. When a Black suspect and a White suspect commit the same exact crimes the federal prosecutor is more likely to reach for that mandatory minimum sentence when the suspect is Black. That’s a disparity between criminals given the same crime and the same underlying facts and circumstances.


That’s one reason that Black Americans get 10 to 20% higher sentences than their White counterparts. And again, that’s after accounting for the exact crime that was committed, the perpetrators criminal history, age, poverty, and really just about everything.


Innocent Black people are 2.4x more likely to be wrongfully convicted of drug crimes and 3.5x more likely to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault than their innocent White Counterparts.


We’ve just walked through a simplified criminal justice process, and I want to point something out about these statistics. A lot of this is just simple division.

For wrongful convictions, we look at the wrongful conviction rate for a crime divided by the conviction rate of that same crime. Do that for both Black and White racial groups and compare.

Sometimes the process is a bit more sophisticated than that; e.g., the sentencing studies that we cited used regression models to control for other factors.

That process allows us to get away from disparity and get a look at the racial bias of our criminal justice system.

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