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  • Lelena Fissehazion

The True Colors of the Justice System

The United States has a complicated history with race. Throughout different eras in American history, African Americans continue to fall victim to discrimination from the government. The judicial branch makes up one of the three branches of the U.S government; their main objective includes using judicial review to decide on the constitutionality of laws and cases. One of the judicial branch’s responsibilities consists of upholding the Constitution and ensuring the fair treatment of all in the eyes of the law, including African Americans. Due to this important responsibility, the judicial branch continues to act as a crucial presence in the background of how the police interacts with African Americans.

In recent times, the abuse perpetrated by many members of law enforcement upon African Americans has grown more prominent in the media. The abusive ways that officers treat African American’s violate the Fourth Amendment: “A law enforcement official may only use the amount of force necessary under the circumstances to make the arrest." Every person has the constitutional right to not be subjected to excessive force while being arrested. By allowing police brutality towards African Americans to continue without consequences, judges deliberately contradict the Fourth Amendment and do not fulfill their duty of judicial review.

In 2015, police officers killed about 994 people in the United States, and African Americans composed 258 of those killed. Out of all those deaths in 2015, 99% of the cases that went to court resulted in no conviction of the officer; the exact number of deaths related to police brutality remains unknown due to a lack of requirements to report officer-involved deaths. Up until 2016, police departments did not need their officers to report their death toll. To add to this lack of accountability, judges required little factual evidence from officers to determine the judgment of their potentially racially motivated crimes and instead allowed officers to practice race-based brutality without consequences.

The current judicial system allows police to abuse their power over African Americans without consequences because of inherent racial prejudice. The lack of diversity in the decision making process by judges leads to a bias against the plaintiff who has been subject to police violence. The lack of representation of minorities in the judicial courthouse reveals an important flaw in the judicial system. The absence of judicial diversity results in a biased system that fosters a deserved perception among segments of our society that the courts are unfair. The shortage of minorities on the judicial bench causes people to question the credibility of the decisions made by the court system. Usually, when making decisions about cases, judges rely on their instincts and past experiences.

Judge Nancy Gertner explains, “It is an illusion to believe that your outside experience doesn’t frame your judging.” Our everyday experiences help formulate our thoughts and ideas on topics. Exposing certain ideas to people helps influence the way they make decisions. Diversity in the courthouse helps provide broader perspectives for judges ensuring impartiality when deciding the outcome of complex issues. Sadly, the majority of the judges in America are currently white males. They lack the capability to truly understand the emotional trauma African Americans face from police brutality because they never faced the same discrimination.

The highest court in America presents the lack of diversity depicted in America’s judges. Despite the fact that minorities make up a considerable amount of the U.S Population, the Supreme Court currently consists of one African American, one Hispanic, and seven Caucasians judges. Although the Supreme Court deals with the more significant cases, 90% of the cases people become familiar with come from state courthouses. State courts display racial inequalities despite the fact that African Americans may make up a considerable amount of the population in those states, like California. In 2018, people of color (POC) made up sixty-two percent of the state population, yet out of all the judges in California, only twenty-six percent of judges were POC.

This massive underrepresentation of African Americans among state judges puts African Americans at a disadvantage during trials and sentencing because no one shares their perspective. One way a judge can understand the perspective of a plaintiff could stem from undergoing similar trauma. An African American judge possesses the ability to make more well-rounded decisions on how to approach a case with an African American plaintiff arguably more than a Caucasian judge because the African American judge can put himself in the plaintiff's shoes.

Most judges who do not serve on racially diverse benches will continue to work in a racially segregated environment that will influence their decisions on cases. A study conducted in 2000 takes the perspective of both African Americans and Caucasians on racial disparity in the courtroom. The study showed that 83% of white judges surveyed believe that black litigants are treated fairly in the justice system, while only 18% of black judges share that belief. This low number of black judges in comparison to the high percentage of white judges who share this belief demonstrates the racial division in the justice system.

White judges do not sense race-based injustices happening in court, making it even harder for white judges to decipher if African Americans were truly treated fairly in the courts within their justice system.

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