This summer saw a new wave of social unrest and protests throughout the United States in response to the tragic killings of Black Americans by the police. The circumstances and subsequent inaction to bring justice to those responsible for the killing of Black Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks spurred millions of people in the United States and around the world to call not only for the punishment of those responsible, but also for widespread police reforms that address structural racism and inequality.
History of Racism and Inequality in the Criminal Justice System
According to an article in the Washington Post, racism and inequality in the criminal justice system have been prevalent since the establishment of the modern system during the Jim Crow Era. The evidence to support racial bias and inequality in the criminal justice system is overwhelming. It permeates every aspect of the system: policing, courts, and corrections. In 2018, the Sentencing Project compiled a report for the United Nations that concludes that Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to longer prison terms. According to the report, “broad statistics mask the racial disparity that pervades the U.S. Criminal justice system, and for African Americans in particular.” These disparities are the result of policies (like the War on Drugs and Stop-and-Frisk) that have disproportionately affected people of color. While the report concludes by listing a series of measures governments and police can adopt to help reduce the existence and the effects of racial bias, the system’s history of racism has made the implementation of these measures difficult.
Impact of Protests on Reform Efforts
Millions of people have continued to protest police brutality, racial bias, and inequality in the criminal justice system in recent months. The demonstrators also protested law enforcement’s excessive use of force to quell the demonstrations. Members of the Black Lives Matter movement and other organizations have joined forces to push for racial justice and police reform across the nation, and their efforts are not going unnoticed. A poll conducted by UC Berkeley shows that the majority of voters in California support reforms in law enforcement, which include making it easier to sue and prosecute police officers and limiting the bargaining power of police unions. Other measures include redirecting funds from law enforcement toward mental health and social work or other programs, an action that falls in line with the defund the police movement. According to an article in Brookings, some municipalities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Baltimore are making changes that are aligned with the defund the police movement by reallocating some of their law enforcement funding to services such as trauma centers and programs for racial and ethnic minority communities.
In June 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping police reform bill aimed at banning chokeholds and enforcing national transparency and accountability measures. Senate Republicans introduced their own police reform bill, which focused on data collection, police training, and included a federal ban on the chokehold. Senate Democrats argued that the Republican bill fell short in holding police departments accountable and blocked discussion of the bill on the Senate floor. No national police reform legislation has passed the U.S. Congress this year.
Instructors click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.
The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.
- “Structural Racism and Police Violence: Causes, Impact, and Reform” Freely accessible scholarship collection from SAGE Journals
- “Poll Data on Racial Disparities and Police Reforms, June 2020” Source: Kaiser Family Foundation
- “There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal justice system is racist. Here’s the proof.” Source: The Washington Post
- “Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System” Source: The Sentencing Project
- “What does ‘defund the police’ mean and does it have merit?” Source: The Brookings Institution
- “Why Senate Democrats just tanked the Republican police reform bill” Source: Vox
- “A new poll finds that most California voters want police reform” Source: Los Angeles Magazine
- Writing: Explain the impact that recent demonstrations and protests have had on the efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
- Debate: Reallocating funds from police departments to invest in marginalized communities is an effective way to end police brutality. (Agree or Disagree.)
- Poll: Individuals should be able to sue a police officer if they believe they were subjected to excessive force. (Agree or Disagree.)
- Short Answer: Is your local or state government considering any type of police reform legislation? Do you think the reforms will be effective at addressing structural racism? Why or why not?
Cover Image: Seattle, USA Jun 19, 2020: Mid-day a huge crowd filling 23rd street for the Juneteenth march. ©iStockphoto.com/400tmax