The System Isn't Broken, It Was Designed This Way: A Critical Analysis of Historical Racial Disadvantage in the Criminal Justice System

Document Type


Publication Date



Contemporary ideologies concerning the structure of the criminal justice system often purports that the system is somehow broken and in dire need of repair from the institutionalized racism that continues to permeate the system. However, to make this assertion of "brokenness" is to also make the assumption that the system was void of any racialized erroneous features at its genesis. This resounding fallacy concerning the structural makeup of the criminal justice system is exasperating because historical trends in justice administration have shown that the criminal justice system is not broken, it was designed that way. The criminal justice system was created in such a way to disadvantage, subdue, and control certain minority groups, namely African Americans. Trends in every facet of criminal justice research concerning police, courts and corrections, provide evidence that the criminal justice system is doing exactly what it was designed to do - marginalize and control minority populations. Although African Americans comprise 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 29% of arrests, 38% of prisoners in state and federal facilities, 42% of death penalty cases, and 37% of executions (Snell, 2011). Research continues to highlight the racial disparities that infiltrate the criminal justice system. While often the recipient of differential treatment, subjective laws, and more punitive sentences, African Americans experience the wrath of the criminal justice system when they are the offenders of crimes. However, when African Americans are victimized by crimes, their victimization is often disregarded and/or addressed with futile effort. Higginbotham (1996) noted these racialized differences in the administration of justice after an extensive review of punishment for crimes committed by both White Americans and African Americans from 1630 to 1865. He found that White Americans tend to ascribe little justice to African Americans while White Americans were indifferent to their own criminality (Higginbotham, 1996). Hawkins (1996) used the phrase "black life is cheap" to describe the devaluation of African American life and their inability to be afforded justice when victimized.


College of Health and Public Administration

Publication or Event Title

Hampton Institute