Unveiling Systemic Injustices in the Criminal Justice System
Sociology is beneficial to society because it offers both micro and macro-level theories that explain societal problems. These theories are valuable because they explain why social problems exist and how they can be alleviated. One problem that has been prevalent throughout history is crime. The purpose of this essay is to examine how lack of personal accountability contributes to crime, along with how social factors described in the Conflict Theory help perpetuate this problem.
Understanding the Societal Framework
For societies to function properly, laws exist to give citizens rules by which to live their lives. These laws exist to protect both the state and the individual. Laws that prevent rape, assault, and murder safeguard individuals. Laws that govern selective service, taxes, and eminent domain protect the state. When laws are broken, crimes are committed. Society punishes lawbreakers to provide restitution, deter future crimes, rehabilitate offenders, and remove violent individuals from society for safety reasons.
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According to free will, individuals are sovereign over their actions. Although personal accountability must be taken into consideration when examining crime, it is shortsighted to think that societal forces aren’t a contributing factor. These forces combine with individual action and free will to create most of the crimes that are committed. The Conflict Theory, which is a macro-level theory, explains how disadvantaged populations are affected by crime. Norms and laws are created for those in power and don’t have any standard of right and wrong. People from poor and lower-income backgrounds are more likely to be labeled as a criminal than those of middle and upper-income backgrounds. (Kendall, 2017)
Lack of Personal Accountability and Crime
According to the Conflict Theory, there is a power divide in all societies, and individuals and groups within these societies are in constant conflict to gain power and resources (Hagan & Shedd). Groups use their power to receive certain advantages in society. One of these is improved treatment within the criminal justice system. If someone is from a powerful group, they can commit crimes and be convicted at a reduced rate due to their resources. Conversely, if someone is a member of a minority group, institutional racism will make them more likely to be convicted and receive a harsher sentence.
Anomie happens when social control discontinues due to the loss of shared values and the sense of purpose in society. (Kendall, 2017) Robert Merton’s theories of anomie explain why individuals and groups engage in deviance. Association and social realities cause people to deviate from societal norms in response to the inequalities of the capitalist system. The criminal justice system is narrowing in on and becoming less lenient on deviant and criminal behavior committed by people of specific categories. “For example, research shows that young, single, urban males are more likely to be perceived as criminals and receive stricter sentences in courts (Rehavi & Starr, 2012).” (Kendall, 2017)
An example of this is affluence, which has a definite effect on how those individuals are treated in the criminal justice system in the United States. The United States criminal justice system is undoubtedly advantageous to those with affluence. When wealthy individuals are charged with a crime, they have the resources to hire talented legal teams that routinely eclipse the talent of the prosecution. This increases the likelihood that wealthy individuals will be exonerated even when they are, in fact, guilty. For example, look at the O.J. Simpson trial. The list of incriminating evidence against O.J. is astronomical: hair evidence, fiber evidence, shoe evidence, blood, and glove evidence. However, O.J. Simpson had the advantage because his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, made the trial about race, not about double murder. O.J. Simpson had money and a lawyer to use his race in Simpson’s favor. O.J. Simpson would not have gotten away with this double murder had he been the average lower-income background African-American male.
Conflict Theory and the Dynamics of Crime
On the contrary, when low-income individuals are criminally charged, it’s common for them to be unable to afford bail or private counsel. This causes them to await their trials in jail, away from their families and places of employment. When cases finally begin, these individuals are often represented by public defenders who lack the investment, talent, and time to take their cases seriously. This leads to an increase in guilty verdicts.
Race also affects crime in the United States. The United States has a history of using its criminal justice system to suppress minorities. African Americans, for example, endured hundreds of years of slavery only to be victimized by Jim Crow Laws shortly after they were emancipated in the South. These laws, which made segregation legal, made it a crime for blacks to occupy restaurants, use public restrooms, or sit outside of their assigned seating in public buses (Iowa Department of Human Rights). When blacks violated these discriminatory laws, they were considered to be committing crimes and were identified as criminals.
Decriminalization and Societal Change
Although the Jim Crow Laws have been abolished, there are more recent examples of how race has affected crime in the United States. An example is the discrepancies between cocaine and crack-related convictions. Although these substances are chemically identical, sentences have been historically one hundred times harsher for crack-related offenses (Walsh & Walsh, 2017). African Americans are statistically poorer than whites, so they are, therefore, more likely to use crack versus cocaine due to its cheaper price. This resulted in blacks being more likely to be convicted for crack-related offenses, which carried a much harsher sentence. This was disastrous for the black community.
Rather than providing community outreach, prevention, or substance abuse treatment, African Americans were routinely sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. This separated families and increased the prevalence of single-mother households in black neighborhoods, which created a snowball effect for many of these already struggling families. In addition to this, it also created criminal records for offenders, which made difficult sentences to access higher education, employment, and housing. An example of institutional racism within the criminal justice system is the fact that prisons are made up of 37% African Americans, despite their population being only 13% of the general population (Walsh & Walsh, 2017).
Personally, I believe the change needs to start with the criminal justice system. If we are choosing to imprison people as punishment, we need to establish a form of rehabilitation for those who wish to conform to society’s norms. Rehabilitation is necessary for progress. The definition of insanity becomes more prevalent to me daily. How can we keep putting people behind bars without any rehabilitation? How can we expect different results from doing the same actions repeatedly? Those who are incarcerated will do the exact same acts of deviance and crime that got them arrested in the first place. As well, I feel society needs to be a little more understanding that not everyone is raised in the same background. Many people are taught from a young age what others are taught is wrong. In that aspect, everyone is raised differently, so the result is always going to be different. Decriminalizing victimless crimes such as prostitution and recreational drug use would be extremely positive for our society. Fewer people going to jail for crimes that aren’t physically endangering will save taxpayers money, save people from suffering in an endless cycle, and cause crime rates to lower.
To recap, there are obvious prejudices within the U.S. criminal justice system. This system treats people preferably when they’re wealthy and members of non-minority groups. The Conflict Theory theorizes this is a result of people in positions of power creating an unfair system to protect their resources. Individuals with affluence can use their resources to gain an advantage in this system to maintain their wealth and freedom. On the contrary, individuals who are poor or who are members of historically persecuted groups, such as African Americans, are treated harsher by this system. Although individual action and personal accountability must be taken into account when evaluating crime and how it impacts different populations, the larger picture must also be taken into account, which the Conflict Theory helps accomplish.
- Kendall, D. E. (2017). Sociology in our times: The essentials. Cengage Learning.
- Hagan, F. E., & Shedd, C. (n.d.). Power Conflict Theory. In Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Springer.
- Rehavi, M. M., & Starr, S. B. (2012). Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Sentences. The Journal of Political Economy, 122(6), 1320-1354. doi:10.1086/668812
- Walsh, J. M., & Walsh, C. A. (2017). Crack cocaine sentencing disparities in the United States: A reflection of a systemic bias against impoverished communities. Race and Social Problems, 9(3), 187-201. doi:10.1007/s12552-017-9217-5
- Iowa Department of Human Rights. (n.d.). Jim Crow Laws. https://humanrights.iowa.gov/cas/jim-crow-laws