by Michael J. Lynch, E. Britt Patterson, and Kristina K. Childs (eds). Monsey, New York: Criminal Justice Press, 2008. 310pp. Paperback. $37.00. ISBN: 9781881798866.

Reviewed by Mary W. Atwell, Department of Criminal Justice, Radford University. Matwell [at] radford.edu.


As with most edited collections, this volume includes articles representing a variety of styles and a range of contributions intended to provide an understanding of the role of race in criminal justice policy and procedure. Although the blurb on the cover states that the anthology represents a “balanced assessment of whether the American criminal justice system is guilty of bias,” little evidence is presented to suggest that it is not. Several articles acknowledge the 1987 work by William Wilbanks, THE MYTH OF A RACIST CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM, but none of the authors suggest that Wilbanks was correct in denying racial discrimination. In fact, the existence of racial and ethnic disparities is the starting point for all of the articles – as it should be. The real question concerns the nature of the discrimination that underlies that disparity, a query leads a number of the authors to raise related questions of how to address and remedy racial and ethnic bias.

The book is structured to provide readers with a typical criminal justice progression from a review of theories, to several articles on policing, four pieces on sentencing and corrections, and a final three that stake out newer territory: bias against whites; race and forensics; and race and environmental crime. To a great extent, all eleven articles share the perspective that in America, membership in a minority race is a stigma, a sign of undesirable difference that influences the responses of the majority. In general, stigmatization carries negative associations, such as inferiority and, most importantly to the study of criminal justice, it carries the association of dangerousness. The dangers attributed to members of racial minorities can range from physical threat to the possibility of social disruption. The fears prompted by stigmatization are often unconscious. Most of the scholars included in this work acknowledge that it is these implicit prejudices, rather than overt racism, that have created systemic disparities in the criminal justice system and that must be attended to.

Several articles in RACIAL DIVIDE stand out, either for their comprehensive treatment of the topic or for their originality. Although there are numerous studies on racial bias and the death penalty, the chapter by Judith Kavanaugh-Earl, John K. Cochran, M. Dwayne Smith, Sondra J. Fogel, and Beth Bjerregaard, is a valuable contribution to that literature. The authors note that the Supreme Court held in MCCLESKEY v. KEMP that, to rise to the level of unconstitutional racial bias, the death penalty would have to be intentionally applied to an individual defendant because of his race. Although [*232] social scientists have consistently found statistical correlations between race and the imposition of capital punishment, the Court has found that such disparities are tolerable within equal protection guarantees. Kavanaugh-Earl and colleagues provide an exhaustive review of studies examining the significance of the race of the defendant and the race of the victim, including recent analysis of data gathered in North Carolina. If, as they suggest, aggravating factors may weigh more heavily against black than against white defendants, it may be that such biases cannot be cured by procedural reforms. They also raise some interesting questions regarding the capriciousness of the application of the death penalty based on studies of prosecutorial charging decisions. Ultimately the article suggests (less than enthusiastically) two possible remedies that could address racial bias in the capital system – subjecting death penalty cases to strict scrutiny analysis or legislating a mandatory death penalty (rejected by the Supreme Court in WOODSON v. NORTH CAROLINA.) This article is a model for both its thorough review of the literature and for its thought provoking conclusions.

A second outstanding piece is “The Things That Pass for Knowledge: Racial Identity and Forensics,” by Tom Mieczkowski. In brief, Mieczkowski argues that scientific classification requires that characteristics used to classify must be both exclusive and exhaustive. There are no “racial characteristics” that meet those standards, mainly because race is a social rather than a physical category. Yet how often does forensic analysis purport to identify a suspect’s race? This article opens up fascinating questions, and it concludes with a warning. While race may sometimes be a useful tool in identifying a suspect, its use in forensic investigation may also contribute to the reification of race as a category and to the prejudices that accompany such analysis.

While most of the chapters in RACIAL DIVIDE consider race as it contributes to unequal enforcement, the chapter on race and environmental crime looks at race as a factor in unequal victimization. Paul Stretesky argues that both examining the causes of environmental crime and studying the process of identifying and punishing environmental criminals have implications for race and class. If racial minorities and poor people are more likely to be victims of environmental crimes (air pollution, toxic substances, hazardous waste disposal), what does this suggest about the rational choice motivation of the perpetrators? What does it suggest about the cumulative effects of these environmental hazards on the health and development of current and future generations of victims? Suppose higher rates of crime in minority communities are related to higher levels of exposure to lead caused by industrial processes intentionally sited in those neighborhoods? What does this suggest about responsibility?

There are several other worthwhile articles in this collection, notably those dealing with policing, prisons, sentencing, and drug policies as they affect juveniles. Lynch, Patterson, and Childs deserve credit for encouraging the individual authors to cross-reference the work of their co-contributors. Those links provide useful cohesiveness to the collection. I wish they had also asked [*233] for consistency in the use of either “Black and White” or “black and white.” There may be an ideological reason for choosing one or the other, but perhaps the scholars could have come to an agreement.

I would be happy to assign a number of the articles in this collection to a class of upper level undergraduates or graduate students. They would be exposed to useful reviews of the literature, excellent current scholarship, and provocative ideas for bridging racial divides in the criminal justice system.

Wilbanks, William. 1987. THE MYTH OF A RACIST CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

MCCLESKEY v. KEMP, 481 U.S. 279 (1987).

WOODSON v. NORTH CAROLINA, 428 U.S. 280 (1976).

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Mary W. Atwell.