Disparity vs. Discrimination in the Justice System

At first glance one may believe that discrimination and disparity are very similar however that is not the case. When one sees a majority of blacks being arrested for drugs or any other crime selected it is believed that discrimination must play a part whether at the beginning of an arrest, during the justice process, or towards the end when it is time for the sentencing. Though it easy to see how one can claim such an idea; it is important to have an open mind and dig deeper to the cause of disparity rather than assume by appearance. The only true way to determine this is to investigate every case in court from start to finish in combination of analyzing the population of the selected city. Perhaps, then a true vision of whether our justice system partakes regularly and intentional in discrimination can be seen or if it is disparity without the touch of discrimination. This is not easily done, nor does anyone want to take responsibility for such a job so the next best thing is to understand the difference between disparity and discrimination. Only then can we hope to determine if our justice system secretly or boldly discriminates against race, sex, and age or if it is innocently a product of disparity.

How do they differ?

Disparity simply means there is a difference among a group represented. If a jail holds 100 criminals and 75%of them are black then one can quickly jump to the conclusion that the justice system is racist and discriminates. This may not be the case however. One must step back and investigate the crimes committed, the seriousness of the crime, and take into account the history of the criminal. (Bilchik, 1999). The system can not release a number of criminals because they need to keep an equal number between the races in jail; to do so would be discrimination itself.

People see disparity and think that it must involve discrimination but that is not only choice. There are cities like Detroit that are noted to have a large population of one particular race; it would only make sense that their jails would hold a majority of that particular race. What people question are the small towns with the race of the least numbers representing the majority race in their jails.

Discrimination is the negative action or act against someone based solely on their age, sex, or race etc. Disparity is believed by many to be a product of discrimination and starts with the process of arrest all the way to the sentencing structures. For example those who are unemployed are believed to be given fewer leniencies than those who hold jobs. Women are believed to serve less time than their male counterparts who commit the same crime. These beliefs bring the question of discrimination into play but could there be a more innocent reason for the disparity?

Kurt Kumli, supervising deputy district attorney for the Juvenile Division of the Santa Clara County’s District Attorney’s office, makes a good example of why some areas may have such racial disparity in cases of juvenile justice. He relates a story where two juveniles, one black and one white, are attending a hearing. The white juvenile’s mom is a white affluent stay at home mom who offers to keep an eye on her son if he is allowed to return home whereas the black juvenile has a working a single mother and does not get the same options as his counterpart. (Frontline PBS, 2005). Though the system is not discriminating since there are different circumstances surrounding each individual; it does create an extreme disparity among the juveniles who get sent home and those who do not.

Possible Solution

One way to eliminate the chances of discrimination is to make sure the laws are applied equally to all those who break them. If someone who is Asian gets arrested for a first time drug offense then they should receive the same sentence and treatment as any other race based with regards to criminal history and seriousness of the crime. What may concern some people is when they believe that just as many white people deal drugs as black people yet they receive unequal punishment. Consistency is vital to reducing the disparity and perhaps reducing the belief that our system is discriminating. The problem will be getting all the local and state departments to find a solution that everyone is in agreement with. For instance, a rural area may be extremely tough and proactive on burglaries but lenient on drug charges versus an urban area may be opposite. These types of inconsistencies will plague our system and lead others to believe that it discriminates.


Frontline PBS. (2005). Is the System racially biased? Retrieved on February 28, 2006,
from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/juvenile/bench/race.html

Bilchik, Shay. (1999). Disproportionate minority confinement often stems from disparity
at early stages of case processing. Retrieved at National Crime Justice Reference System on February, 28, 2006, from http://www.ncjrs.org/html/ojjdp/9912_1/min1.html

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