This article reflects on the realities of race, crime, and punishment in the United States. It focuses on the damage caused on African Americans by the “War on Drugs” that started during the mid-1980s. It observes that the massive imprisonment of black men in the United States started in 1973 and examines the imprisonment and crime rates from the late 1960s to the early twenty-first century. The next section takes a look at the racial patterns in drug use, drug sales, drug arrests, and in conviction and imprisonment for drug offenses. The article also includes some suggestions to handle the unequal treatment of African Americans, such as making certain changes in drug policy.
Issues of racial and ethnic disparity in the criminal justice system continues to provoke controversy and spark debate. It is clear that the overt discrimination that characterized the criminal justice system in the first half of the 20th Century is a thing of the past. Reforms mandated by appellate courts or adopted voluntarily by state and federal governments have made it less likely that criminal justice officials treat similarly situated defendants of different races differently. Despite these reforms, inequities persist. There is convincing empirical evidence that defendant race and ethnicity affect decisions regarding bail, charging, plea bargaining, and sentencing. Although research documents the persistence of inequalities at all stages of court processing, the most compelling evidence comes from studies of capital sentencing, which consistently reveals that the race of the victim—and to a lesser extent the race of the offender—plays a key role in determining who will be sentenced to death. A number of steps can be taken to address this issue, including reducing the size of the prison population and subjecting crime control proposals to a racial and ethnic disparity impact analyses.