South Los Angeles has an image of being riddled with gang violence. But things were out of the ordinary when Cameron Terrell, a white high schooler from an affluent suburban neighborhood in the outskirts of Los Angeles, was charged for murder in a gang-related setting last October. Terrell was acquitted in July, while the two younger black participants in the murder of Justin Holmes were incarcerated on counts of murder.
This is an example of the “white privilege” that has became a more recognized — and protested against — phenomenon.
One of the most prominent cases that also demonstrates this happened in 2016, when Brock Turner, a white, affluent student-athlete at Stanford University was convicted of three counts of sexual assault. He was let off alarmingly easily: six months in jail (and he was released after three months for good behavior).
To many, the Turner case represented the advantage that the population of privileged white men in the justice system. There was an overwhelming amount of criticism toward the American criminal justice system and its inability to properly serve justice, yet as Terrell’s case shows, no progress has been made.
The only way to equalize the system in favor of justice is not to treat the rich, white men more harshly, but rather to treat marginalized people better. This can only be accomplished with a more diversified staff, especially judges, in the court.
It has become increasingly clear that race and affluence greatly contribute to an individual’s likelihood of incarceration.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that though 64 percent of the American population is non-Hispanic white, but only 39 percent of those are non-Hispanic white. Meanwhile, 13 percent of the U.S. population is black, but make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population. For every 100,000 people, 450 non-white Hispanics are in prison, 831 Hispanic people are in prison and — most staggeringly — 2,306 black people are in prison.
This cannot be simply attributed to the idea of Hispanic and black people participating in more crimes, but rather inequality embedded into the justice system. With Turner — who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman at a fraternity party and could have faced a sentence of up to 14 years — the public was alarmed when he only received six months of jail time.
The judge stated that he did not want a “severe impact” on the life of Turner when questioned about the leniency of the sentence, implying that the people of color who receive stiffer sentences have lives where there will not be a “severe impact” from jail time, at least in the eyes of the law.
Surely, the judge did not intend to deliberately exhibit racism. However, it is still evident that he values the lives of rich white men over that of their poorer and non-white counterparts. This is not the judge’s fault per se, but rather the system’s, for favoring the hiring a certain cutout of judges: white males. People will show mercy to those they can connect with, and these white judges will, inevitably, show mercy to the defendants who look like them.
Beyond race, Terrell’s case was extremely affected by his affluence. Terrell’s family was easily able to pay the $5 million bail posted, which gave the jury the opportunity to see Terrell as more than a criminal; he had the ability to go home at night, walk around the park or eat at the cafeteria.
As a result, the jury unconsciously created a softer image for Terrell; no longer was he the cold-blooded getaway driver. Instead, he became, in the eyes of the jury, a kid who made a mistake. According to statistics provided in the study “Racial and Gender Diversity on State Courts: An AJS Study,” a majority of states have a severe deficiency in minority and women judges. The median percentage of minority judges in each individual state is 7.4 percent, with the mean percentage of minority judges being 9.3 percent. Though the percentage of women judges is far higher, with the median being 20.35 percent and a mean of 21.2 percent, it is unarguable that courts have a severe lack of diversity.
The data is extremely alarming to most, as should be the case. It is nearly impossible for the justice system to be impartial to race if the court itself largely consists of white males.
The only solution to combating racism, and more specifically the white privilege that has become embedded into the justice system, is to attack the racism and white privilege that exists at the head of the justice system — the judges. With the diversification of who presides in court, we can begin to make true progress toward treating minority defendants with the grace and leniency that clients like Terrell received due to white privilege.