Inequality in the U.S. Criminal Justice System

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Disparities in the justice system have been an issue in our society for decades, dissipating our faith in the system. The constitution of the United States claims that everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law, the U.S. criminal justice system is supposed to be an equal opportunity for all individuals, but that is not the case for lower-class or working-class individuals compared to upper-class individuals. Conflict theory: claims society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. It holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity. It proposes that laws and norms reflect the interests of powerful members of society. It suggests that who or what is labeled as deviant depends on who has the most power. Consequently, lower-class or working-class individuals face much more discrimination in the justice system, are not well informed or educated on their rights, and don’t have enough resources compared to upper-class individuals.

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Class-based double standards operate in virtually every criminal justice setting, including police behavior, jury selection, and sentencing. The double standards themselves inflict even greater costs on society by compromising the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and by aggravating class divisions nationally. For the same crimes, the poor are more likely than the well-off to get arrested and, if arrested, more likely to be charged and, if charged, more likely to be convicted and, if convicted, more likely to be sentenced to prison and, if sentenced to prison, more likely to receive a long sentence. Many corporate interests donate heavily to both political parties to ensure access to legislators and favorable action on their legislation, regardless of which party wins the election.

The result of this influence can be tax breaks, less regulation, or limits on the extent of punishment. Without some type of disruptive counterforce, the same distortions of crime and criminality are likely to continue in the media because they help divert attention from the actions of questionable corporate citizens like. Also, although real people convicted of felonies lose their voting rights, corporations convicted of multiple felonies lose none of their political rights—and in some cases try to lobby Congress to weaken the law under which they were convicted. Defendants with publicly appointed attorneys are more likely to be detained before trial as well as more likely to be jailed. Facing time and resource limitations, publicly funded attorneys often resort to plea bargains: 90 to 95 percent of defendants represented by a public defender plead guilty. Throughout each level of the criminal justice system, from arrest to sentencing, the likelihood of being treated leniently by the system is greater the better off one is economically.

The poor are treated more harshly in the courts with a poor defendant being more likely to be found guilty than a wealthier defendant. Two crucial factors influence the outcome. The first is the ability of the accused to be free on bail prior to trial, and the second is access to legal counsel able to devote enough time to the case. Since bail and good quality legal counsel cost money, it is hardly surprising that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds fair badly in the court system. The Sixth Amendment requires that “[I]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right … to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court found the Sixth Amendment right to counsel to be fundamental, noting, “In our adversary system of criminal justice, any person … who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” Despite these words, many defendants who cannot afford counsel in the United States go unrepresented or do not receive adequate and meaningful representation.

In 2004, 41 years after the ruling in Gideon, the American Bar Association published a report titled “Gideon’s Broken Promise,” which concluded that “indigent defense in the United States remains in a state of crisis, resulting in a system that lacks fundamental fairness and places poor persons at constant risk of wrongful conviction. Although people do see some corporate crimes as being as serious as street crime and as deserving of punishment and incarceration, these sentiments are not reflected in the criminal law, because of intervention in the law-making process by the wealthy and the power elite. Most of the harmful and illegitimate behavior of the rich and powerful has not traditionally been defined as criminal, but nearly all the harmful and deviant behavior perpetrated by the poor and the powerless is defined as violating the criminal law. These omitted relations of class justice reveal the importance of two systemic operations in the administration of criminal justice: “selective enforcement” and “differential application” of the law. Selective enforcement of the law refers to the fact that most harms perpetrated by the affluent are “beyond incrimination” (Kennedy 1970). Harms committed by the politically and economically powerful that do come within the purview of criminal law are typically downplayed, ignored, or marginalized through differential application. Prosecutions of corporations are difficult because their financial resources give them access to significant legal expertise. In contrast, the poor are represented by a public defender who frequently has a high caseload. Increasingly, criminal justice not only reflects the class biases in society, but also helps create and reinforce them. The United States continues to enlarge its framework of social control against the poor in society while the rich, especially corporations, continue to grow.

The problem of inequality and the growing gap between the rich and the poor are less frequently part of the “official knowledge” about crime, but they are important nevertheless. Depictions of crime that focus blame on individuals rather than on society also help prevent questions about inequality and the size of corporate personas. The criminal justice system rarely applies its tough-on-crime rhetoric to the executive who harms employees by cutting corners on workplace safety, who knowingly markets unsafe products, or who causes environmental damage to help boost corporate profits. Thus, crime control theory and practice evidence a legal and structural class bias by concentrating the coercive power of the state on the behaviors of the poor. Although certain behaviors may cause widespread social harm, the criminal law does not forbid abuses of power in the realm of economic domination, governmental control, and denial of human rights (Simon 1999, p. 38). For example, being a habitual offender is against the law in most areas, where “three strikes and you’re out” applies to street criminals. But habitual offender laws do not apply to corporate persons that can repeatedly commit serious crimes without being subjected to habitual offender statutes. National crime policies have veered toward harsher punishments, but not more effective ones. Although there is little reason or evidence to suggest that the situation has changed over the past thirty years, the topic is rarely studied and is in danger of slipping from the consciousness of many criminologists.

On June 15th, 2013 there was an incident involving a wealthy 16-year-old that killed four people while drunk driving, his name was Ethan Couch. Couch’s case was dismissed by the court and Judge which decided to sentence Couch to 10 years of probation instead of the 20 year jail sentence he could have received. The reason for this was because Couch’s defense attorney determined that Couch was suffering with something called affluenza. Affluenza is defined as a psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation. His lawyers successfully argued he was intellectually 18 but had an emotional age of 12. He was able to walk away from the crash with only bruises, minor injuries and eventually, 10 years’ probation. Couch’s terrible actions left four people dead and one boy completely paralyzed. His blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit for an adult and there were traces of Valium in his system when he lost control of his pickup truck and plowed into a group of people helping a woman whose car had stalled.

Another incident involving drunk driving also occurred in Texas. However, this case resulted in an extremely different outcome. Arellano killed a pregnant mother and her unborn baby while drunk driving. Arellano received two counts; intoxicated manslaughter and intoxicated assault. Both counts were the same that Couch, the ‘affluenza teen’ had received. Arellano lived a substantially different life as opposed to Ethan Couch. Arellano and his family illegally crossed the U.S. – Mexico border two years before the incident. He spoke little English and knew very little about the U.S. court system. His case was sent to the adult court almost immediately. He was given two choices; the first was to accept a guilty plea and receive 20 years in prison with the chance of probation after 10 years, or have his trial sent to a jury with the possibility of receiving 50 years in prison. Arellano chose the guilty plea. These cases highlight how socioeconomic status greatly affect the outcomes in court, even in the same state and dealing with the same charges.

Additional resources should be invested into studying (and prosecuting) white-collar crime. The consciousness of all citizens should be raised about this set of harms they are not likely to see on television, and they could ask their representatives for better laws or the equal application of tough on-crime principles. Legislators and policymakers could turn their attention to some of the more serious harms in society and start to seek solutions based on more comprehensive information. Reiman (1998a) suggests that “we must transform the equal right to counsel into the right to equal counsel” so that the quality of legal representation—and thus the quality of justice—depends less on one’s social class than it currently does. Gertner favors eliminating mandatory minimums, restoring discretion in sentencing, and offering judges a robust menu of options from a list of evidence-based rehabilitative initiatives. The legal system has double-standards when it comes to someone’s socioeconomic class. To efficiently target crime, we need effective social services, early education initiatives, access to health care and mental services, and more housing job opportunities.

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Inequality in the U.S. Criminal Justice System. (2022, Feb 05). Retrieved September 29, 2022 , from
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