The top four challenges facing Black males in the criminal justice system

Distance – Black males in jails and prisons are more than just individuals who have been accused or convicted of a crime. They are husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, cousins, and friends. For example, over 92% of incarcerated parents are fathers.  However, the geographical distance created by being in prison or jail creates a significant barrier for Black males to adequately fulfill these relational roles. For example, according to the criminal justice literature, the average distance a Black male is incarcerated from his family is 100 miles. Having to navigate such distance puts significant strain on the incarcerated Black male and his family which makes maintaining close relationships challenging. Additionally, this distance adds stress to the process of re-entry as the Black male attempts to reintegrate himself back into his family and peer circles.

Mental health– Prisons have become America’s largest community mental health centers. The criminal justice literature indicates that 20% of individuals in jails and 15% of individuals in state prisons have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Additionally, according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, 2 million individuals with mental illness are booked into jails every year. Furthermore, the Treatment Advocacy Center has indicated that in 44 US states, a jail or prison incarcerates more mentally ill individuals than the state’s largest psychiatric hospital. With Black males comprising nearly 40% of the prison population, it is safe to assume that many of these individuals have experienced mental illness that they have sought to cope with through drugs, aggression, and socially isolative behaviors.  

Finances– The social class a Black male is born into can substantially influence his interactions with the criminal justice system. Several studies in the criminal justice literature have highlighted a significant correlation between poverty and incarceration. For example, a study by the Brooking Institution found that individuals in the bottom 10% of earners were 20% more likely to be in prison on a given day in their 30’s compared to the top 10% of earners. There are several factors that influence this phenomenon such as access to quality education, geographical segregation that contributes to over policing, and worthwhile legal employment opportunities. In addition, criminal justice policies related to legal fees, fees to participate in mandatory treatment or classes, and cash bail further the financial struggles experienced by incarcerated Black males.     

The intersecting experience of poverty and involvement with the criminal justice system continues even after the Black male is released from prison or jail. Black males with a record are less likely to be called back for job interviews, more likely to work minimum wage jobs, and more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. Black males are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle where the factors that influenced their incarceration (e.g., poverty, access to stable employment) will subsequently contribute to their reincarceration.

Access to justice– Black males are disproportionally represented at every phase of the criminal justice system (e.g., arrest, initial charging, sentencing). This over representation increases the Black male’s vulnerability to harsher charges and lengthier sentences. The criminal justice literature has indicated that the experience of racial bias throughout the legal proceedings contributes significantly to Black male’s incarceration rates. For example, a recent study found that when engaging in the plea-bargaining process (a staple of the criminal justice system designed to make the process more efficient), White defendants were 25% more likely to have their most serious initial charges dropped or reduced to a less severe charge. Because of the reduced charges, White defendants with initial felony charges were 15% more likely to be charged with a misdemeanor compared to similar Black male defendants. These findings highlight the challenges Black males face accessing equal justice in the court system. Instead of experiencing the “blind eye” of the law, the criminal justice system has been influenced by societal expectations of Black males and criminal behavior which contributes to higher arrest rates and harsher sentences.

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