Equal Protection in Criminal Punishment The 14th Amendment articulates that no State shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (Sullivan and Gunther 486). It is nearly impossible though, for the equal treatment of all persons, since every law affects people differently. “This command cannot literally require equal treatment of all persons, since almost all laws classify in some way, by imposing burdens on or granting benefits to some people and not others” (Sullivan and Gunther 486).
The Equal Protection Clause was meant for the application of all laws equally, not necessarily equal treatment of all people. There is a great difference in the two. The people most adversely affected by these iniquitous laws are mainly minorities and those from low socio-economic groups. The inequality in sentencings of the criminals is often the focal point of legal discussion. The most debatable topic when it comes to criminal punishment is the area surrounding the death penalty. It is often given unjustly and undeservingly to minorities.
Race is the most controversial and monumental factor in determining the length and severity of a criminal’s punishment. Racial discrimination has been evident in our legal system in the past and continues to remain present to this day. Our court system has deprived minorities of their rights throughout the years. In Strauder v. West Virginia, the State excluded blacks from the jury. The State law stated that “all white male persons who are twenty-one years of age and who are citizens of this State shall be liable to serve as jurors” (Sullivan and Gunther 487).
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A black man facing trial in the 1800’s against an all white jury doesn’t stand a chance. The Court found that to deny citizen participation in the administration of justice solely on racial grounds "is practically a brand upon them, affixed by law; an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing to individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure to all others" (Sullivan and Gunther 487). This case was a major turning point in racial discrimination in our legal system.
Minorities were starting to be seen as people, and not just objects. But at this time, we were still far from our goal of total equality among all people. In a more recent case, Swain v. Alabama, the Court held that a defendant in a criminal case is not constitutionally allowed to a balanced number of his race on the trial jury or the jury panel. There is no evidence in this case that the jury selection committee applied different jury selection standards as between blacks and whites (Swain v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 209, 1965). There may not be evidence, but it is quite obvious that there is an inequality here.
How can a man facing a death penalty be put up against an all white jury during a time of racial tension? A flawed system of selection of jury panels is not comparable to intended racial discrimination (Swain v. Alabama, 380 U. S. 209, 1965). Although the selection of an all white jury was not sought out, society during this time was racially divided. The principle announced in Strauder v. West Virginia, that a State denies a black defendant equal protection when it puts him on trial before a jury from which members of his race have been purposefully excluded, was reaffirmed in Batson v.
Kentucky (Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 84). The Equal Protection Clause assures the defendant that the State will not prohibit members of his race from the jury venire on account of race, or on the inaccurate assumption that members of his race as a group are not eligible to serve as jurors. By denying a person participation in jury duty on the basis of his race, the State also unconstitutionally discriminates against the barred juror (Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U. S. 85). This inequality in the selection of jurors has damaged confidence in our legal system.
The lack of confidence has in turn caused inequality in the sentencing of criminals, mostly dealing with minorities. There is no doubt that minorities receive harsher and longer sentences. “As of June 1998, only seven white men had been executed in the United States for killing black victims. In the same 1976-1998 period, 115 black men were executed for killing white victims” (Cole 132). These numbers prove that blacks have historically received harsher treatments than whites. This connects to the selection of juries. Juries have a great affect on the sentencing of criminals.
A predominantly white jury is more than likely to convict a black man, than a predominantly black jury is. “Juries remain predominantly white in most of the country, and apparently their sympathies lie more strongly with white than black victims” (Cole 133). A large study conducted by Professors David Baldus, George Woodworth, and Charles Pulaski, showed that there was a large disparity in the racial breakdown of the death penalty. They found that defendants charged with killing white victims received the death penalty eleven times more often than defendants charged with killing black victims (Cole 133).
The Equal Protection Clause was set out to protect from this indifference, but this clearly shows that it has not done so. Equal treatment of all people has yet to be achieved today and racial inequality is still ever-present. Criminal sentencing when it comes to blacks and whites is vastly different and unjust. The disproportion of sentences given to blacks and whites in dealing with drugs is ridiculous. First of all, the gap in sentencing when it comes to crack cocaine and powder cocaine is too big.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, a small-time crack dealer caught selling 5 grams of crack receives the same prison sentence as a large-scale powder cocaine dealer convicted of distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine (Cole 142). To me, powder cocaine is just as dangerous and addicting as crack cocaine. The large gap in sentencings for the two offenses places a higher value on the danger level of crack, when in all actuality they are on the same level. The increase in policing of the low-level crack offenders has caused us to neglect the big drug traffickers.
As it is, we already do not have enough federal law enforcement to police all the drug dealers out there. By paying more attention to the people with small amounts of crack cocaine, we are letting others get by with more powdered cocaine. This puts more powdered cocaine on the streets, because dealers are unafraid to receive the consequences since the pay-off to conviction rate is much more in their favor. An offender would receive a mandatory minimum of 10 years if they were to get caught with 5,000 grams of powdered cocaine, while a person would receive the same sentence for being caught with only 50 grams of crack cocaine.
Crack cocaine is the only drug that carries a mandatory prison sentence for a first-time possession offense. A person convicted in federal court of simple possession of 5 grams of crack is subject to a mandatory five-year prison term while a person convicted of possessing 5 grams of powder will probably receive a probation sentence. To solve this problem, we need to bridge the gap between the two sentencings. Crack cocaine is the poor man’s powdered cocaine. The popularity of crack cocaine was associated with its cheap price, which for the first time made cocaine available to a wider economic class (thesentencingproject. rg). More than often, the biggest users of crack cocaine are people of lower social status. This in turn implicates that more crack cocaine users are African Americans. As a result of this, blacks are receiving more prison time when it comes to crack cocaine. African Americans make up one-third of crack cocaine users, with the other two-thirds being white and Hipic (The Defenders Online). About 90 percent of federal crack cocaine defendants are black (Cole 142). African American drug defendants have a 20 percent greater chance of being sentenced to prison than white drug defendants (The Sentencing Project).
Why is this the case? The legal system inadvertently targets blacks by placing higher sentences on crack cocaine offenses. A considerable racial disparity in prosecutions and imprisonment has endured for too long. Along with disproportionate law enforcement procedures that aim towards blacks, the crack sentencing guidelines have resulted in more than 80 percent of crack cocaine defendants being African American, although in all actuality, a majority of crack offenders are white or Hipic (The Sentencing Project).
With the punishment of crack cocaine so severe for low level offenses, the prison incarceration rate has risen, causing us as taxpayers more money. American prisons and jails house nearly two million people and Blacks face incarceration rates more than six times that of Whites (Schlesinger). The inequality in our justice system has caused more minorities to be locked up, which in result is a financial burden on the American taxpayers. By equalizing the gap in criminal sentencing for all races, we can solve the problems from within our legal system.
The racial inequality that is present in our justice system also exists in the sentencing of the death penalty. There seems to be a consistent factor in those on death row. “Those being executed and awaiting their deaths are no different from those selected for execution in the past: virtually all were poor; about half are members of racial minorities; and the overwhelming majority where sentenced to death for crimes against white victims” (Bright 433). Over time, our legal system has placed a “small” value of importance on minorities and this was built upon, to where whites did not notice this inequality.
There has to be some sort of factor that influences why there are more minorities on death row. A possible influence on the situation could be the fact that most prosecutors are white. “98 percent of all state death penalty state prosecutors are white and in eighteen of the thirty-eight death penalty states, prosecutors are exclusively white” (Free 187). White prosecutors may not knowingly have a racial bias in their head, but it is evident when they are trying to seek the death penalty. State courts were 4. 3 times more likely to sentence those who killed whites than those that killed blacks (Free 185).
These same courts were 1. 1 times more likely to black defendants to death than any other defendant of another race (Free 185). While the state prosecutors are pressing for the death penalty, the defendant is supplied with an insufficient lawyer. The jury is more than likely to listen to the more qualified state prosecutor and be persuaded by what he has to say, over the under qualified attorney supplied by the state. This has resulted in more successful cases in favor of the state prosecutors. This reoccurring situation is ever-so-present in today’s legal system.
Minorities are getting shafted in the American justice system and nothing is being done to prevent this from continuing to happen in the future. 'All men are created equal... ' may be what the Declaration of Independence says, but in all reality, some men receive better treatment than others. The actual reality of the Declaration of Independence is that all free, white, landowning men are created equal. For that reason, inequality has always been present in the United States' legal system and maintains to exist today; though, the inequality currently in the system is not as obvious as what it once was.
We have made little progress towards total equality. Anywhere you look in today’s world, you can find some sort of inequality or injustice. I firmly believe we will always have a racial prejudice in the world no matter what, because there will always be the people that can’t get over their racial indifferences. Although we will not fully achieve the goal of racially equality, we can make positive steps forward by first addressing the problems associated with in our justice system. Race is the largest influencing factor in the sentencing of criminals, especially when it comes o dealing with the death penalty. Works Cited Bright, Stephen B. “Discrimination, Death, and Denial: The Tolerance of Racial Discrimination in Infliction of the Death Penalty. ” Santa Clara Law Review Vol. 35 (1995. ): 433. Free Jr. , Marvin D. Racial Issues in Criminal Justice: the Case of African Americans. Westport: Criminal Justice Press, 2004. 185,187. Schlesinger, Traci. "How Determinate Sentencing Contributed to the Prison Boom: The Failure of Race Neutral Policies" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The Law and Society Association, Jul 06, 2006. ttp://www. allacademic. com/meta/p94999_index. html “Sentencing disparity: Crack Cocaine v Powdered Cocaine. ” The Defenders Online. 27 May 2009. 16 Dec. 2009. http://www. thedefendersonline. com/2009/05/27/sentencing-disparity-crack-cocaine-v-powder-cocaine/ Sullivan, Kathleen M. and Gerald Gunther. Constitutional Law: 16th Ed. New York: Foundation Press, 2007. The Sentencing Project: Research and Advocacy for Reform. “Federal Crack Cocaine Sentencing. ” 13 December 2009. http://www. sentencingproject. org/doc/publications/dp_crack_sentencing. pdf
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