Commentary: We Need More People of Color in the Justice System

Despite the fact that minorities are often disproportionately behind bars, the lawyers and judges who put them there often don’t look like them at all.

Posted: 03/06/2013 05:49 PM EST

(Photo: Getty Images/STOCK)

If you’ve ever looked at America’s criminal justice system, you may have noticed that the game, as it were, appears to be racially rigged. That becomes particularly clear if you look at the races of people in power in the judicial system.

In the year 2000, for instance, just 4.2 percent of lawyers were Black, according to the American Bar Association [PDF]. And a new study shows that, while getting better, the number of federal judges of color in U.S. District Courts is also low. Though about 12 percent are Black, which matches the general U.S. population, only 9 percent are Latino and only 1 percent is Asian.

Why might this be? According to a new study, it could be because — like many parts of life — there is bias in the process used to decide who gets to become a federal judge.

New research from University of Rochester professor Maya Sen [PDF] claims that the American Bar Association is prejudiced against women and minorities when it comes to its judicial qualifications ratings, ratings government officials take into account when considering the career advancements of judges. Writes Sen: 

First, I demonstrate that poorly rated lower-court nominees are significantly more likely to have their nominations fail before the Senate. However, I also show that minority and female nominees are more likely than whites and males to receive these lower ratings, even after controlling for education, experience, and partisanship via matching. Furthermore, by presenting results showing that ABA ratings are unrelated to judges' ultimate reversal rates, I show that these scores are a poor predictor of how nominees perform once confirmed.

In other words, because of inherent bias within the way things are run, women and minorities are kept out the upper echelons of power within the justice system. 

Obviously finding racial and gender equality within any industry is important. But it becomes particularly important when discussing criminal justice. More than 60 percent of incarcerated persons are racial or ethnic minorities, according to the nonprofit Sentencing Project.

And people of color face the death penalty at rates that far outstrip those of whites. These numbers wouldn’t diminish overnight if Blacks and Latinos were put into higher positions of authority in criminal justice, but it would be a step in the right direction in helping to eliminate bias.

Because it’s the American Bar Association giving minorities and women particularly poor ratings, it sounds like the ABA should focus on getting more minority staffers, too.

 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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