Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System

Causes and Solutions

Racial disparity exists in numerous facets of the criminal justice system, including policing. A simple glance at the percentage of people stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated reveals glaring disparities among races. For decades, criminal justice scholars have studied the origins of this disparity, and their research has identified a complicated intersection involving numerous causes.

One cause-the subject of well-deserved public scrutiny and outrage-is racial bias by police officers. Such conscious and unconscious bias may be manifested when police officers use a person's race as the primary motivation to stop, search, and arrest individuals, as well as use control on individuals during altercations. Does racial profiling exist? Yes. Numerous anecdotal reports of racial profiling exist, and scholarly police research corroborates reports of racial profiling in various police departments.1

However, evidence of racial profiling somewhere is not evidence of racial profiling everywhere. It is important to analyze specific departments and even specific officers to evaluate the prevalence of racial profiling in each jurisdiction and agency.

It is also important to recognize that disparity alone is not evidence of racial bias. Correlation is not causation, especially when examining criminal justice data. For example, although African Americans make up around 12% of the U.S. population, approximately 25% of offenders in violent crimes are African Americans, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey (a non-law enforcement research organization).2  Does this mean African Americans are somehow naturally more violent than other races? Of course not. This absurd, simplistic perspective ignores how poverty, unemployment, neighborhood quality, and long-term structural disadvantage-powerful economic variables-affect the relationship between race and criminal offending.

In fact, scholars acknowledge that structural disadvantage created by institutional racism as another main cause of racially disparate outcomes.3  Put another way, large-scale societal racism has created a system in which some groups of people encounter unique obstacles to food, housing, medical care, education, and employment, among others. Other groups of people may not encounter these obstacles because of their skin color, and thus, are able to more readily access higher levels of education, better paying jobs, better neighborhoods, etc.

Here are some prominent forms of structural disadvantage that people of color have historically experienced for decades (and centuries): convict leasing systems, redlining practices, predatory lending habits, housing and educational segregation, discriminatory hiring practices, reduced residential mobility, healthcare accessibility, and access to supermarkets, to name only a few.

More importantly, these cumulative effects of these factors may lead to increased contact with law enforcement. All the aforementioned issues lead to reduced residential and economic mobility, which further impoverishes a specific class of people and can lead to a slew of income-related offenses, such as an expired driver's license, expired or no valid registration, owning an older vehicle with the potential for more defects (e.g., broken windshield, burned out headlights or taillights), no vehicle insurance, and a suspended/revoked driver's license for not paying tickets related to these offenses or court-ordered child support.

Moreover, neighborhood quality is correlated with crime rates, meaning that if structural disadvantage is confining specific groups of people to certain neighborhoods with high crime rates, the potential for greater intersection with law enforcement increases. In other words, as officers are patrolling high-crime neighborhoods, they may be encountering individuals who cannot escape these neighborhoods due to a multi-generational cycle of structural disadvantage and poverty.

There is striking evidence for how structural disadvantage can negatively impact life outcomes for specific subpopulations. For example, the median household income for white Americans in 2018 was $65,902, while the median household income for African Americans is $41,511.4  Approximately 44% of white Americans have an associate or bachelor's degree, compared to 29% for African Americans.5  The average life expectancy for white Americans is approximately 79 years, compared to 76 years for African Americans.

We see similar patterns of racially disparate life outcomes in Lincoln. According to the U.S. Census, 85% of Lincolnites are white, while 4% are African American, 5% are Asian, and 7% are Hispanic.6  However, 64% of homeless persons in Lincoln are white, while 23% of homeless persons are African American, and 6% are Native American. 7 

The Lincoln Police Department's data likewise shows disproportionality among individuals who are not stopped or arrested. For example, 20.7% of violent crime victims are African Americans.8  Among individuals who are the subject of a mental health call for service, 12% are African American, while 75% are white.  Among missing persons, 21% are African American; whites make up only 56% of individuals reported missing despite being 85% of the population.

Here is a critical takeaway: institutional racism continues to penetrate American society in the form of structural disadvantage, negatively impacting the life outcomes of generations of people of color.

Given the vast forms of structural disadvantage and its massively malignant impact on people of color, especially African Americans, some might be tempted to minimize or dismiss the impact of racial bias in policing. For example, some might argue that although police officers in America shoot and kill around 1,000 people each year,9  the medical profession very well may kill tens of thousands more people of color as a result of not only medical errors,10  but also bias and discrimination among healthcare providers11 …yet no one is attempting burn down hospitals.

This perspective is disingenuous and hollow. No sincere discussion of structural disadvantage should minimize a profession's misdeeds, absolve a field of wrongdoing based on the perceived scale of its impact, or divert attention away from an institution by pointing the finger at others.

Rather, police departments must acknowledge the existence of bias and institutional racism, as well as collaborate with community partners to help unwind decades and centuries of structural disadvantage. We hope the resources offered by this transparency page demonstrate our commitment to fair and impartial policing, addressing and eliminating bias in our police officers, investing in community relationships, and further developing an exceptional group of employees that reflect the Lincoln community.

Institutional racism and structural disadvantage may be inextricably intertwined with our nation's past, but they need not remain a part of our future. LPD is proud to be a hub for change in both our community and profession.


  1. The Evidence of Racial Profiling: Interpreting Documented and Unofficial Sources
  2. www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/cv18st.pdf
  3. onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1540-6237.2012.00868.x
  4. data.census.gov/cedsci/table?tid=ACSSPP1Y2018.S0201&hidePreview=true
  5. nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_RFA.asp
  6. www.census.gov/quickfacts/lincolncitynebraska
  7. www.lincolnhomelesscoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/CSIHomelessnessReport4-09.pdf
  8. https://www.lincoln.ne.gov/City/Departments/Police/About-LPD/Transparency/Crime-Data
  9. www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/
  10. www.forbes.com/sites/leahbinder/2018/11/09/ignored-as-an-election-issue-deaths-from-medical-errors-have-researchers-alarmed/#739d02b653d0
  11. www.nytimes.com/2019/02/25/upshot/doctors-and-racial-bias-still-a-long-way-to-go.html