Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System, by David Cole (Review)

by David Cole, The New Press 218 pages, $25.00 hardcover.

Review by A. Friedmann

Those people who have long believed that this nation's criminal justice system is steeped in systemic racism and class-based bias will find vindication in No Equal Justice by Georgetown University law professor David Cole. Those people who think the justice system follows the creed of "equality under the law" will find Cole's book a very disturbing read that challenges their idealism with hard facts and harder truths. For Cole, in crafting No Equal Justice, has stripped away the criminal justice system's thin veneer of supposed fairness to expose its seamy underside rife with racial and socioeconomic in equalities.

Cole does not merely contend that discrimination, whether intentional or unintentional, plays an inherent role in the justice system. Rather, he asserts that "our criminal justice system affirmatively depends upon inequality" to maximize effective policing of the poor and marginalized while minimizing the impact on the rights of the privileged. Cole cites racial profiling for traffic stops, coercive requests for consent searches, "quality of life" policing (invariably in impoverished communities), and selective prosecution as examples of how the justice system imposes raceand class-based double standards.

He discusses in depth the constitutional rules governing police conduct, legal representation for indigent defendants, discrimination in jury selection, and disparate sentencing to develop his thesis that there is a dual justice system: one for the haves and one for the have-nots, with the latter including most minorities. Cole provides historical background to various aspects of criminal law, using representative examples and up-to-date data; applicable case citations are included in the extensive footnotes that accompany each chapter. From arrest and trial to conviction and sentencing, he paints a grim picture of a justice system with built-in biases.

Cole lays at the door of the Supreme Court a large part of the blame for inequalities in the criminal justice system. Using compelling arguments, he accuses the Court of establishing constitutional protections in theory that fail utterly in practice - such as requiring courts to appoint counsel for impoverished defendants but setting a threshold for effective representation so low that virtually any attorney will do, regardless of competence.

Cole argues that race- and class-based inequities in the justice system contribute to crime by undermining the public's perception of the system's legitimacy. In short; inequality encourages criminality. He offers recommendations for legal and legislative changes that would reduce the double standards extant in the criminal justice system - including curtailing an over-reliance on incarceration and reintegrating offenders into society through the use of community-based sanctions. Cole readily acknowledges that many of his proposed remedies require conces sions by the privileged - who have the most to lose in making the justice system more equitable - which isn't likely to happen voluntarily.

Although Cole has produced a wellwritten and well-researched critique of inequalities in the criminal justice system, No Equal Justice is not without its shortcomings. While his book purports to address both race and class, Cole focuses almost exclusively on the former, discussing class-based disparities primarily in terms of appointed counsel for indigent defendants. A more comprehensive approach would have examined the socio-economic context in which crime is defined - e.g., why society imposes harsher punishments on offenses commonly committed by the poor (stealing $20 from a convenience store) than on crimes committed by the wealthy (stealing $20 million from a savings-and-loan). In regard to racial inequalities, Cole does not adequately address the overwhelming "whiteness" of the criminal justice system in terms of the paucity of minority judges, prosecutors and lawmakers.

Further, Cole lauds Japan's community-oriented justice system without noting its other, less admirable, aspects - such as coercive police interrogations, few fights for criminal defendants, and corporal punishment and rigid authoritarianism in a prison system that has been criticized by a U.N. human rights committee [see PLN, June, 1996].

But these minor flaws do not detract from Cole's trenchant examination of inequalities in the U. S. justice system and his proposed solutions for same. Without exaggeration, No Equal Justice should be required reading for every judge, criminal justice researcher, lawyer and law student in the nation - and for every prisoner who seeks to further his or her knowledge of racial and classbased discrimination in an unjust justice system.

No Equal Justice is available from Prison Legal News (See ad on pages 3132 of this issue.)

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login