FSU Executive Director of Institute of Justice Discusses Racial Bias in the Criminal Justice System

October 27, 2021 College, Criminal Defense

Carrie Pettus, the founding executive director of the Institute for Research and Development at Florida State University recently wrote a column for the Orlando Sentinel discussing the dangers of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

She opens by discussing the dangers of racism in the public health sector, pointing out how the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the Black Lives Matter movement, spotlighted the racial health disparities that have spanned across generations of Black Americans and other people of color. She ties the racial public health emergency to the criminal justice system, calling for more attention on the “racial bias endemic to the criminal justice system.”

As she discusses the racial disparities inherent in the criminal justice system, she begins by addressing how long-lasting this problem has been. She states:

We have known for decades that an individual’s race and socioeconomic status increase risk for making contact with law enforcement and significantly impact outcomes once they become embroiled in the justice system. Even when holding criminal history constant, Black individuals, other people of color and those drawn from poor communities are more likely to be arrested, charged, held pretrial, convicted and to receive longer sentences than their white and more affluent peers.

She discusses how the racial bias issue in the American justice system has severe consequences, both for those who have been in the criminal justice system and correctional staff working within the prison system. She theorizes that these biases “may contribute to the cycling of individuals in and out of incarceration settings every year.”

Experiencing racial inequity in the justice system gives those going through that incredibly hard time a “sense of internalized hopelessness,” which lasts long after they leave the system, and provides a greater risk that the individual will reenter the system. Interestingly, she also notes that prison staff, like correctional officers, can also directly or indirectly suffer the negative ramifications of this inherent racial disparity.

Pettus then calls for action – new approaches that would transform, and not just recognize, racial prejudice in the prison system. She states that now, more than ever, Americans are at a “turning point where we have the moral, political, and fiscal will to enact reforms and achieve equity.” Next, she calls for “criminal-justice stokeholds” to take action and implement transformative structural changes to the prison system. Such action must include these “justice-involved individuals and criminal justice professionals” who can generate solutions to reorganizing the prison culture, thereby promoting concrete equity.

However, Pettus notes that there are very few evidence-based involvements to alter attitudes, behaviors, practices, and policies that are racially biased at the criminal justice system’s organizational levels. She points to an award given to the National Institutes of Health, who developed “antiracism policies in patient-centered medical homes throughout Florida.” This unprecedented award was the culmination of the work of Pettus and her colleagues. She ties the “Plan-Do-Study-Act” evidence-driven plan to racial inequity in the criminal justice system, calling for such a plan to be put in place in order to institute transformative reform. She then breaks down the phases:

  1. Plan – Pettus states this phase will bring in policymakers, researchers, corrections and criminal justice professionals, and those in the criminal justice system together in order to discuss where biases rooted in racial or cultural prejudice affect the policies and practices of the prison system. They would also theorize solutions for healthier criminal justice environments.
  2. Do – Pettus states that this phase will bring the aforementioned individuals together in “workgroups” where they will “identify what practices or factors could change, specify timelines to achieve these changes, and detail exactly how they will know that the changes have happened.”
  3. Study – Pettus states that this phase will involve implementing programs designed to achieve the goals previously identified. These programs would be evaluated using empirical data, interviews, and surveys, to see if racial equity is increasing.
  4. Act – Pettus states that this phase will enlist collaborators who would “identify practices and policies in need of revision [and] new processes to be adopted.” They would use this information to create a template to be used in expanding the framework developed to other jurisdictions across America.

Pettus hopes that this work could change the criminal justice landscape for the nearly 13 million people who are “trapped in the churn of incarceration, release and reincarceration.”

This article was written by Gabi D’Esposito

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