Disparity and discrimination are common occurrences in the criminal justice systems of the United States that experienced at every level. Statistics show that more people are jailed in the US than in any other country in the world. The major cause of sentencing and incarceration disparities in the criminal justice system is the government’s initiative to end the sale and use of drugs, which has escalated into a national epidemic (Cole, Smith, & DeJong, 2016). Discrimination and racial disparities are witnessed at every level of the justice system including policing, incarceration, trial, and sentencing. Differentiating between disparity and discrimination is primarily based on evaluation of legal and extralegal factors. Extralegal factors include past criminal record and seriousness of crime while extralegal factors include sex, religion, race, and gender (Walker, Spohn, & DeLone, 2012).
Disparity refers to differential treatment of individuals, which has no legal basis with regard to the application of law, and that does not necessarily involve discrimination (Walker et al. 2012). Unlike discrimination, disparity does not emanate from intentional bias or prejudice that is commonly linked with an individual’s ethnic background. In certain cases, it is based on legitimate factors such as age and level of competence. In contrast, discrimination refers to the differential treatment of individuals based on factors such as age, religion, race, ethnicity, and economic as well as social status (Cole et al., 2016). Both terms are references to acts that perpetuate inequality in society, which contradicts the precept of equality and justice for all as stipulated in the constitution (Gaines & Miller, 2008). In addition, they are both ways of denying people their rights and corrupting the due process of law. They are different ways of perpetuating injustice.
An example of disparity in the criminal justice is the disproportionate incarceration and sentencing of members of the African American and Hispanic ethnic groups because of drug offences (Gaines & Miller, 2008). Even though all ethnic groups participate in the sale and use of drugs in almost equal measures, the aforementioned groups get more punitive sentences than members of other ethnic groups. The rate of drug use among various ethnic groups is evenly distributed. However, the number of African Americans and Hispanics in correctional facilities is disproportionately high in comparison with members of other groups (Cole et al., 2016). The high rates of incarceration and harsh sentencing emanate from disparities in the enforcement of law. Another example of disparity is the differential sentencing of criminals for crimes related to crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Criminals incarcerated for possession of crack cocaine get more punitive sentences compared with those awarded to criminals incarcerated for possession of powder cocaine (Gaines & Miller, 2008). Powder and crack cocaine refer to the same drug. However, the criminal justice system views them differently and, as a result, awards dissimilar sentences.
Discrimination exists in different forms that include contextual, systematic, institutionalized, direct, and indirect discrimination (Walker et al. 2012). Direct discrimination occurs when an individual is treated unfairly because of the possession of a protected characteristic such as gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation (Gaines & Miller, 2008). For example, a judge might award a lenient sentence to a female offender and a harsh sentence to a male offender for a similar crime. Institutionalized discrimination results from organizational structures, policies, and practices that fail to recognize the needs and rights of different social identities (Walker et al. 2012). For example, police officers patrol poor and minority neighborhoods more because of the stereotype that these areas are inhabited by people who are highly likely to commit a crime. Systematic discrimination occurs due to the differential application of policies and practices especially within organizational settings (Walker et al. 2012). For example, some organizations have policies that prevent qualified women from applying for jobs that are traditionally regarded as masculine. In the criminal justice setting, discriminatory barriers in hiring amount to discrimination. Contextual discrimination occurs only in certain cases or under specific circumstances that instigate unfair treatment of individuals. Indirect discrimination occurs when an individual is affected by a practice or policy that puts them in a state of disadvantage (Gaines & Miller, 2008). For example, some companies implement policies that restrict job promotions to individuals of a certain age. Promotion should be based on competence and not age. Another example of indirect discrimination is a policy requiring all employees to work on Saturdays. Such a policy would be discriminatory against Jewish people because they do not work on Saturdays.
Noting the difference between disparity and discrimination in the criminal justice field is important because of their varied application and effect on society. In addition, it helps in determining the types of decisions made and their implications on people (Gaines & Miller, 2008). For example, it makes it easy to determine whether a decision was made based on legitimate factors such as a person’s prior criminal history or based on illegitimate factors such as gender, age, sexual orientation, or social class. Differentiating between the two concepts helps in analyzing the decisions made by professionals in the criminal justice system to determine whether fair and equitable treatment was awarded.
In conclusion, disparity and discrimination are occurrences that enhance inequality and promote injustice in society. They exist at all levels of the criminal justice system. They affect the quality of decisions made by professionals in the justice system and hinder the administration of justice that is a right protected by the constitution.
Cole, G. F., Smith, C. E., & DeJong, C. (2016). The American System of Criminal Justice. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.
Gaines, L. K., & Miller, R. L. (2008). Criminal Justice System. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.
Walker, S., Spohn, C., & DeLone M. (2012). The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America. New York, NY: Cengage Learning.