Equal Protection in Criminal Punishment
The 14th Amendment articulates that no State shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (Sullivan and Gunther 486). It is nearly impossible though, for the equal treatment of all persons, since every law affects people differently. “This command cannot literally require equal treatment of all persons, since almost all laws classify in some way, by imposing burdens on or granting benefits to some people and not others” (Sullivan and Gunther 486). The Equal Protection Clause was meant for the application of all laws equally, not necessarily equal treatment of all people. There is a great difference in the two. The people most adversely affected by these iniquitous laws are mainly minorities and those from low socio-economic groups. The inequality in sentencings of the criminals is often the focal point of legal discussion. The most debatable topic when it comes to criminal punishment is the area surrounding the death penalty. It is often given unjustly and undeservingly to minorities. Race is the most controversial and monumental factor in determining the length and severity of a criminal’s punishment.
Racial discrimination has been evident in our legal system in the past and continues to remain present to this day. Our court system has deprived minorities of their rights throughout the years. In Strauder v. West Virginia, the State excluded blacks from the jury. The State law stated that “all white male persons who are twenty-one years of age and who are citizens of this State shall be liable to serve as jurors” (Sullivan and Gunther 487). A black man facing trial in the 1800’s against an all white jury doesn’t stand a chance. The Court found that to deny citizen participation in the administration of justice solely on racial grounds "is practically a brand upon them, affixed by law; an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing to individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure to all others" (Sullivan and Gunther 487). This case was a major turning point in racial discrimination in our legal system. Minorities were starting to be seen as people, and not just objects. But at this time, we were still far from our goal of total equality among all people. In a more recent case, Swain v. Alabama, the Court held that a defendant in a criminal case is not constitutionally allowed to a balanced number of his race on the trial jury or the jury panel. There is no evidence in this case that the jury selection committee applied different jury selection standards as between blacks and whites (Swain v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 209, 1965). There may not be evidence, but it is quite obvious that there is an inequality here. How can a man facing a death penalty be put up against an all white jury during a time of racial tension? A flawed system of selection of jury panels is not comparable to intended racial discrimination (Swain v. Alabama, 380 U.S. 209, 1965). Although the selection of an all white jury was not sought out, society during this time was racially divided. The principle announced in Strauder v. West Virginia, that a State denies a black defendant equal protection when it puts him on trial before a jury from which members of his race have been purposefully excluded, was reaffirmed in Batson v. Kentucky (Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 84). The Equal Protection Clause assures the defendant that the State will not prohibit members of his race from the jury venire on account of race, or on the inaccurate assumption that members of his race as a group are not eligible to serve as jurors. By denying a person participation in jury duty on the basis of his race, the State also unconstitutionally discriminates against the barred juror (Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 85). This inequality in the selection of jurors has damaged confidence in our legal system. The lack of...
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