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The Criminal Justice System

The Criminal Justice System, a system the British government set up to deal with the treatment of law-breakers, has three main goals to achieve social order, these are, (1) enforcing criminal law, (2) maintaining law and order in the society, and (3) helping victims. This may seem to be a well thought of system, but like any other organisation, there are flaws, and one of the major flaws is discrimination, and the bias that stems from discrimination.

Discrimination on the basis of class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity operates at the level of attitude, on the street, in the home, at the workplace or at social venues. In regards to the Criminal Justice System, race and gender are always accounted for in court proceedings. As Smith in 1997 said, “the apparent ‘fairness’ of the criminal justice system does not mean that the outcomes will necessarily be unbiased”. Tonry in 1997 found that even though certain ethnic groups are far more often caught in the net of criminal justice than others, they have elevated rates of official offending which differ from one country to another. The major ethnic group in Britain and Wales being black people whose families originated from the Caribbean in the 1940’s. (cited in the Oxford Handbook). Black people find themselves subject to rules made for them by white people, it is also the same for other groups living in the same culture, e.g. it seems to be men that make the rules for the women in society, even though this seems to be changing in the United States. Foreign-born people often have their rules made for them by the Protestant Anglo-Saxon minority. The middle-class seem to make all the rules which must be obeyed by the vast majority - in the schools, the courts, etc.

There are many models proposed within the criminology field that focus on the issue of discrimination. The first is the conflict theory. Conflict theory sees societies comprised of groups with conflicting values and interests. (Vold et al. 1998)
There is seen to be a link between power and crime, the more powerful you are, the least likely to be committing a crime, so the lower classes are discriminated here as they don’t have the same power a middle-class or upper-class businessman might have therefore they are labelled to be trouble-makers, they are treated harsher by the criminal justice system than their peers, but the lower class is seen more favourably than ethnic minorities, especially ethnic groups that have less power than them. In the 1960’s, researchers found that blacks were more severely sentenced than whites. Hagan in 1974 reviewed many of the findings supporting racial discrimination and found that studies were not allowing for the possibility that black defendants may be charged with more serious crimes than whites, and may have more serious criminal records (cited in ‘Theoretical Criminology’). Lizotte in 1978 found that blacks have been shown to receive harsher sentences because they are less likely to make bail, since they are less affluent, and this reduces their ability to provide an effective defence.

Another model which discusses discrimination is the Learning model of crime. Barnard argued that poverty, urban environment and discrimination resulted in chronic arousal to the people living in inner-city houses. People living in these areas interpret a wide variety of events in such a way that they respond with a lot of aggression, even if the situation was relatively harmless to begin with, therefore the inner-city areas where the chronic arousal takes place are isolated socially from the rest of the city.

Discrimination is a major factor in the police force, it has been well known, due to the media, that in Western countries police stop and search youths just because of their colour. A lot of violence has erupted due to the Negro thinking it is unjust, one prime example is the Rodney King case - an innocent man, beaten up because of the colour of his skin. Sentencing also seems to be stiffer when given to a coloured person no matter what the crime might be. The Race Relations Act of 1968 made it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of race, colour, or ethnic or national origins, in the provision of goods, facilities, and services. Before the act was passed, a research project was carried out which showed that racial discrimination ‘ranged from the massive to the substantial’(Daniel, 1968). The United Nations Charter (1945) declared in article 55 that the United Nations will promote human rights and fundamental freedom for all ‘without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. In 1948 the Universal declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) added another eight possible discriminatory grounds to the original declaration, these were colour, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (cited in Discrimination). Even though the right idea was there, discrimination is still a way of life.

There is a model of justice which discusses discrimination known as the group justice model, this was identified by McCrudden, Smith and Brown (1991). This model is used by the Race Relations Act (1976) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975). These use the concept of indirect discrimination which means that it is concerned with the outcomes for groups resulting from the application of a rule or principle. (cited in the Oxford Handbook). The Commission for Racial Equality, 1991 hoped to change the provisions of the anti-discrimination law, but id this was extended to criminal justice then the problem of deciding whether certain criteria that work to the disadvantage of an ethnic minority can be justified. The fact that police stop and search particular people can be justifiable in terms of results e.g. youths walking the streets after a certain time could mean drug peddling, but the fact that they are targeting youths with no evidence to arrest is discrimination.

The Home office in 1991 studied prison statistics in Britain’s prisons. It was found that even though 5.8% of the total population was from an ethnic origin, 18.2% of the prison population seemed to be from the same category. Maybe people with ethnic origins have the need to commit more crime than the rest of the population, but it could be just discrimination. As Michael Banton said, ‘Ethnic groups are distinguished by the ways in which their culture differs from that of other groups, and they will therefore have their characteristic forms of deviance’. Statistically, there is a big impact on the figures when there is a distinct pattern emerging from the subcultures of certain ethnic groups if the crimes are repeated frequently. It was found that the majority of the prisoners with ethnic origins were actual foreign nationals.

Unjustified suspicion is effected when blacks are stopped for questioning. Studies have found that more and more black people are stopped on the streets for questioning, but few are charged as a result. This shows that the police have tainted images of black people. Walker (1989) studied three different ethnic groups (white, black and Asian suspects) in two age categories (17-20yrs and 21-25yrs) and found that more blacks than whites were refused bail by both the police and the courts. This has led to the over-representation of blacks in prison. That is why the prison figures are 18.2% more than the total population. Walker found that discrimination was found in one age category but not another. The high representation of certain ethnic minority groups in prison are due to the arrests of foreign ‘mules’ bringing drugs into Britain (Green, 1991). The prison statistics show that by the end of the criminal justice system process, black people were far more likely to be undergoing the most severe penalty available. The prisoner is most likely to have missed out on the educational system and belongs to a minority group.

Wolfgang and Ferracuti applied a theory relating to an earlier study on homicide in Philadelphia (Wolfgang, 1958). A significant number of homicides that had occurred amongst lower-class people resulted from trivial events that took on great importance due to expectations on how people behave. All people were expected to behave by asserting their chance to achieve vast riches. Although all individuals are not expected to achieve this goal, it is generally accepted that they should all try. Those who didn’t were characterised as lazy.

PACE (Police and criminal evidence act, 1984) is an act which sets out to help safeguard suspects from mistreatment. It should help the minority who are discriminated against, but it doesn’t seem to happen. The minority’s don’t have the expertise to plead innocence when condemned as the criminal justice system is made up of liberal, middle-class, white men who base a lot of the cases on discretion. As they are not many ethnic professionals it doesn’t seem fair, as it could be classed as bias, as the white judges (or magistrates) prefer to give the middle-class a second chance. PACE is backed by five codes of practice, the first, Code A being on stop and search. The objective basis is that it shouldn’t derive from the general characteristics, Jefferson was unconvinced by this as he thought it was a guide to reasonable suspicion. Brown (1997) found that PACE had limited impact on stop and search practise due to difficulties over the concept of reasonable suspicion, poor training, poor sanctions for breaches of rules, and lack of public awareness of stop and search powers.

There is another theory, the cumulative effects theory which predicts an increase in the proportion of black people among suspects and offenders from the earliest to the latest stage of the process. (cited in the Oxford Handbook). But it has been found that bias had not been found at every stage of the criminal justice process, in reality black people are more likely to be acquitted than white people (Reiner, 1993).

Bias against black people has risen since the 1970’s when the black youths tried to identify themselves to the police and society as individuals. This has led to direct racial discrimination from the judges and magistrates who remembered the time of segregation and other similar matters, this would build up and provide a racial outlook therefore showing discrimination.

Being a part of an ethnic group is seen as being a member and an important source of personal identity, it is seen to be an attack on the group as a whole when one member has been targeted. This is why there are many practical problems when trying to improve decision making procedures. The criminal justice system should take into account there are not enough minority groups in the workforce, especially the police, or the courts, so therefore try to improve the standards when dealing with offenders. Even though racism and discrimination is part and parcel of living in a society, a person’s identity as a human should be more important than the colour of the skin.

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