Skip to main content

How Can U.S. Policymakers Fix the Broken Criminal Justice System?

A criminal justice expert weighs in on a recent report to the United Nations outlining systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system.
People in Newark march on the second anniversary of the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26th, 2014, in Newark, New Jersey.

People in Newark march on the second anniversary of the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26th, 2014, in Newark, New Jersey. 

Scholars, analysts, and researchers spend entire careers attempting to reverse the racial disparities and discrimination that pervade the United States criminal justice system.

A team of such researchers at the Sentencing Project recently crafted a report to the United Nations on the system's racial disparities. Senior Research Analyst Nazgol Ghandnoosh spoke with Pacific Standard about the report and some ways to combat the racial disparities it revealed.


Your recent report discusses systemic racism in each "step" of the U.S. criminal justice system specifically. Why, then, did you send this report to the U.N. rather than directly to a U.S. policymaker?

Basically, we also write a lot of reports for the general public and for policymakers. We provide testimonies to legislators—really, any policymaker who will listen, we will speak to and write to about [criminal justice] issues. As a body that’s looking at these issues across the world, the U.N. has a pretty good sense of what's happening with these issues here in the U.S. as well. The U.S. is an important member of the U.N., and these problems are potentially raised by other peer countries, so this is one more possible way to put emphasis on the need to address racial disparities [in the U.S. criminal justice system].

The idea is that there's symbolic value in a U.N. report indicating these kinds of problems in the U.S. They can't make anyone do anything about it, but they can bring to attention, as an organization, these kinds of issues and highlight some of the shameful things that need to be addressed in the criminal justice system.

Since the U.N. Special Rapporteur is going to be preparing this special report on various aspects of racism in the U.S. and racial inequality, we wanted to make sure to give her a good sense of how these issues were at play in the criminal justice system.

At the end of the report, you indicate several ways to combat racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, including ending the War on Drugs. Why should this be a primary area to focus on?

The report tracks racial disparities from the first point of contact that people have (policing) up until people are done with their criminal sentences. It also looks at the collateral consequences that they face afterwards. A major reason that people have contact with police officers is because of the enforcement of drug laws. That's one major point of entry, and it's also where the racial disparities for arrests, convictions, and sentences are most unjust: Research shows that people use drugs at similar rates regardless of race or ethnicity. So when a greater number of people of color are coming into the system for drug offenses, something is off.

You also suggest the implementation of "racial impact statements," or statements that show how a proposed law could have consequences for sentencing, probation, or parole policies affecting minorities disproportionately. What is the goal of these statements, and where might they occur in the criminal justice system?

[Racial impact statements] are about being more proactive in assessing the effect of the legislation that's being considered. Typically, the states that have implemented [the statements]—Iowa, Connecticut, Oregon, New Jersey—their idea is that a legislator would call for an analysis of the racial impact of a proposed bill. That way, we can get past the argument that the massively disproportionate impact of the law falling on communities of color was an unintended consequence of that legislation.

One of the points this report makes is that the sources of racial disparities come from discretion of individual officers and other criminal justice practitioners. But it's also about the disparate impact of the laws that we have on the books.

When it comes to how criminal justice practitioners use their discretion, there's room for monitoring the impact of the decisions that they're making. That comes in the form of collecting data on police stops and searches and actually doing something with it once the data is collected.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.