At every stage of the criminal justice process serious problems undermine basic tenets of fairness and equity, as well as the public’s expectations for safety. Perhaps the most glaring problem inherent in today’s system is the number of racial and ethnic minorities who are disproportionately treated more harshly and more often by our Nation’s criminal justice system. At every stage of the criminal justice process – from initial contact to sentencing to the challenges facing those reentering the community after incarceration – racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the number of people stopped, arrested, tried, convicted and incarcerated.
While people may argue about the reasons behind it, few would disagree that extensive racial and ethnic disparities exist today in the American criminal justice system. These disparities are particularly true for African American men and boys, who are grossly overrepresented at every stage of the judicial process. Initial contacts with police officers are often driven by racial profiling and other racially tainted practices, and the disparities exist through the sentencing phase: African Americans routinely receive more jail time and harsher punishments.
Although African Americans make up just over 12 percent of the national population, 42 percent of Americans currently on death row are African American. Nearly a million African Americans today are incarcerated in prisons and in jails, and unless there is a change, a black male born today has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. Furthermore, African American women have the highest rate of incarceration among women in our nation, a rate that is four times higher than that of White women.
This is not just a problem among African Americans or racial and ethnic minorities. Our nation has 5 percent of the world’s population. We have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States that is five times the incarceration rate in the rest of the world. The bottom line is that under our current criminal justice system too many people are being incarcerated and otherwise caught up in the criminal justice system and we still have too many Americans who do not feel safe in the homes or their communities. Furthermore, because of the disparities that result from our current system, entire communities within our country do not have confidence in the criminal justice system.
The National Criminal Justice Commission Act has been introduced in the Senate (S.306) by Senator Jim Webb (VA) and 19 of his colleagues. This bill would create a national commission with an 18-month timeline to examine and review the myriad of problems that exist in our current criminal justice system. In doing so, the Commission would also be charged with looking at how we have arrived at this convoluted mess, how many of our problems are interrelated and often feed off of one another, and how we can correct a system that is badly in need of a new course.
The NAACP strongly supports the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, S. 306.