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Racial Disparities in Sentencing in the US Essay

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Updated: Jun 6th, 2021


Since the 1980s, the increase in incarceration rates in the US remains tremendous. In particular, the US counts for approximately 25% of the incarcerated population all over the globe (American Psychological Association, 2014). Among the key reasons for this fact, it is possible to note uneven court orders and policy changes, while the overall crime rate tends to decrease. Both men and women identified as racial minorities present the largest prison populations, which makes the problem socially important. This paper aims to explore racial disparity in the US prisons through the perspective of the systems and social constructionist theories to come up with a deep understanding of the problem and potential solutions.

Problem Identification

The evidence shows that African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minority groups are more likely to be imprisoned compared to the White population. 1 out of 3 African-American males go to prison, and 1 out of 10 men are currently there (Rehavi & Starr, 2014). One of every six Latinos is also likely to be incarcerated at least once in their life, comparing to one of seventeen Whites. The history of this social problem is marked by the shift from explicit racism to implicit presentations and outcomes. Associated with the unequal position of African-Americans in the historical context, racism was a form of correction in many states, especially those located in the South.

With the victory in the Civil War and, later, new policies, their situation began to change steadily. Even though some improvement in incarceration rates is noted, it is still critical to make this problem public to achieve equal treatment of all people regardless of their cultural identity (Rehavi & Starr, 2014). The cause of this social problem lies in systemic law enforcement prerogatives that often prioritize the White population, which can be expressed in the length of sentences, probation decisions, trial penalties, and so on.

Two Social Theories

The systems theory has a multilevel character and can be applied equally to both the largest and smallest aspects of the social world. This theory is focused on the diverse relationships between people, arguing that they cannot be distinguished from a holistic context. The main idea is that society consists of various subsystems that should be considered as a whole, where each of them impacts others and is affected by them (Michailakis & Schirmer, 2014). The emphasis is placed on relationships or processes at different levels of the social system, including individuals, groups, organizations, and communities. At the same time, one should stress that every system creates boundaries that allow them to preserve their cultural identity. The systems interact and integrate into a dynamic process of change, which leads to stability in case the members cooperate.

The social constructionist theory studies the stability of society that is achieved mainly through social institutions that may include religious groups, ethnic communities, and so on. Michailakis and Schirmer (2014) state that the most characteristic feature of modern society is the plurality of social institutions. People are seen as a product of their cultural and personal history, as well as their immediate social context. According to the theory of social constructionism, the relationships between people that form the inner world of subjective experience should be assigned a top priority (Michailakis & Schirmer, 2014). The meaning of self is created in social interaction, or socialization, that is a process of formation and development of an individual, consisting in the development of social norms, cultural values ​​, and behaviors by it, allowing it to live and act in a given society. The formation of personality and shift in meaning occur in close interaction with others across the social structure, where a person lives and acts. There is no single reality, but each person or group designs their own vision, depending on different contexts, such as historical, cultural, or linguistic.

Understanding the Problem through Theories

Considering the social problem of racial disparity in sentencing through the lens of the systems theory, one can refer to the aspect of the interrelation between the members of groups. On the one hand, social integration between groups raises the issue of isolating the formal structure of the group in relation to its members, which leads to ignoring their interests. On the other hand, weakening the formalization of relations can lead to the fact that certain groups and their members can use organizations for their own purposes. In the first case, there is an increase in the collective ability of the action, in the second, on the contrary, decrease. In other words, one may suggest that the main reason for racial disparity in the prisons is, therefore, a combination of formalized expectations of different ethnicities and their interests that contradict each other.

The very criminal justice of the US seems to be prone to inequality towards minorities who have to face it at different levels. The contacts with the law enforcement officials compose the first step that is characteristic of racial disparity (Kutateladze, Andiloro, Johnson, & Spohn, 2014). For example, in terms of the systems theory, it becomes evident that a Latin or African-American suspect is likely to have problems related to the indigent defense counsel. As a result, the mentioned elements of the system would cause further racial bias, and limited attention to a particular case of such a person is likely to lead to longer sentencing length due to inappropriate appraisal. As a part of the linked whole, the decision-making of prosecution tends to provide fewer assistance departures. The decisions of trial judges are another example of implicit racial bias since the racial stereotypes activate unconsciously.

In terms of the social constructionist theory, people create and adjust their reality, which happens in prisons when a person enters the facility and observes a new environment. In sentencing, the law enforcement agencies and other involved persons face the need to create a reality of a certain case based on available information to evaluate it towards laws. In the course of socialization, a person interprets the information to transmit it to the other individual and respond to it, relying on the elements inherent in socialization and consisting of interpretative schemes. Race, ethnicity, and gender play a significant role in sentencing conclusions, which is especially pertinent to people who victimize Whites or were offended in drug abuse.

After sentencing, there is also the secondary socialization with the internalization of institutionally sound sub-worlds. For example, one may refer to the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black (OITNB)” which depicts racial disparity between Whites, African-Americans, and Latinos based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman. The main character, Piper Chapman, has already formed a life attitude that meets the requirements of her social environment, and new internalized information is overlaid on knowledge acquired earlier. However, this raises the problems of the consistency of both knowledge systems and an individual’s intention to realize his or her life attitude in the given role behavior. OITNB also presents the problem of racial disparity within the Latino community between Dominican, Colombians, and Puerto Ricans, each of which opposes themselves and strives to dictate the prison rules.

Human Behavior Critique and Recommendations

The previous section provides the considerations that arguing assuming that the behavior of the law enforcement officials and judges are stigmatized towards racial minorities. Even though there is no explicit racism, the actions and outcomes remain unequal compared to those taken towards White offenders. Blomberg, Brancale, Beaver, and Bales (2016) state that despite the fact that the laws in the US are color-blind, the behaviors of people who apply them are biased. The American consciousness seems to be deeply rooted in implicit racism, which needs to be addressed by means of a set of solutions in different directions. Although the potential recommendations refer to various aspects of the discussed problem, they need to be agreed with each other and, perhaps, considered in the systems theory.

The first recommendation is to introduce the National Criminal Justice Commission that would examine incarceration and reveal the causes of racial disparity in sentencing. Based on the investigations, it can suggest new reforms and continuously work to eliminate the bias. The second assumption is associated with funding indigent defense agencies from the government resources, which would ensure that all people have the opportunity to protect themselves (Blomberg et al., 2016). The effective operation of the mentioned bodies would also contribute to reconsidering mandatory minimum sentences that are more often assigned to racial minorities. The social workers may take the role of advocates to promote the use of racial impact statements is the third recommendation to prevent racial disparity by preparing the assessments of possible racial consequences before enacting a decision.

Personal Opinion

As a future social worker, I clearly understand that racial disparity issues are critical in the US context. There are many laws that prohibit racism and discrimination, yet much to be done to address them in practice. Human consciousness and behavior are stigmatized, and social workers are the key persons to eliminate inequality. In sentencing, offenders experience stress, misperception, and frustration, which are complicated by the fear of a biased judge or a lack of ways to protect oneself. In this connection, I believe that racial disparity rather important to address immediately. On a larger scale, the evidence discussed in this paper shows that the US justice system is imperfect, which also draws my attention to this problem as I can contribute to its solution to some extent.


To conclude, it should be stressed that racial disparity in sentencing is a social problem that requires urgent action from policymakers and social workers. While racism expressions were significantly reduced in the history of the US, its implicit outcomes and actions remain, placing minorities in a disadvantaged position. Using the systems and social constructionist theories, it was revealed that the American consciousness is stigmatized, even though the laws and policies are aimed to address the problem. It was recommended to launch the National Criminal Justice Commission and advocate for racial impact statements and funding indigent defense agencies.


American Psychological Association. (2014). Web.

Blomberg, T. G., Brancale, J. M., Beaver, K. M., & Bales, W. D. (2016). Advancing criminology and criminal justice policy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Kutateladze, B. L., Andiloro, N. R., Johnson, B. D., & Spohn, C. C. (2014). Cumulative disadvantage: Examining racial and ethnic disparity in prosecution and sentencing. Criminology, 52(3), 514-551.

Michailakis, D., & Schirmer, W. (2014). Social work and social problems: A contribution from systems theory and constructionism. International Journal of Social Welfare, 23(4), 431-442.

Rehavi, M. M., & Starr, S. B. (2014). Racial disparity in federal criminal sentences. Journal of Political Economy, 122(6), 1320-1354.

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