Criminal Justice & Institutional Injustice

Institutional injustice stems from hundreds of years of bias against people based on things like their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, education and lack of wealth.

Journalists should strive to make our country more just. Journalists hold powerful people accountable so they can’t use their status and money to create an unfair advantage. Since America is a capitalistic society some inequality is seen as “fair.” Sometimes a person’s achievements can be credited to their hard work. But oftentimes, an American’s success was earned off the backs of those who were systematically held down. To accurately report on our society, journalists must understand where different types of inequality come from.

Today, we’ll take a look at just a few of the common misunderstandings in our society and criminal justice system.

Can a race be won fairly if it was rigged from the beginning?

Mass Incarceration

America’s mass incarceration problem is growing fast. The NAACP’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet points out some alarming numbers. Here are just a few:

  • Between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.
  • African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites.

You can’t talk about mass incarceration without talking about race. The Prison Policy Initiative looked at data from the following sources to show just how unequal America’s incarceration rates are.

Data sources:

White Black Hispanic
U.S. population 62.1% 13.2% 17.4%
Jail incarceration 47.4% 35.4% 14.9%
State & federal incarceration 33.6% 35.4% 21.6%
Life sentence 33.4% 48.3% 14.4%
Life without parole sentence 33.5% 56.4% 7.4%
Death row population 42.5% 41.7% 13.0%



In 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that in the United States, about 2,298,300 people were incarcerated out of a population of 323.1 million.

The United States has the largest prison population in the world and the highest per-capita incarceration rate, according to World Prison Brief.

Visually ( facilitated the creation of this video. created the animation. The Prison Policy Initiative helped conduct research and fact-checking. (

VICE’s Justice series examines the winners and losers of the for-profit criminal justice system. Imprisoning people for being poor has technically been illegal in this country for two hundred years, but it is still a reality. Municipalities with small, low-income populations and correspondingly low tax bases regularly pay their salaries, and pad their budgets by issuing “quality of life” and traffic fines to people for minor offenses—and sending them to jail if they can’t pay.

In part two of VICE’s investigation into modern-day debtor’s prison practices, we explore the phenomenon of private probation companies. To avoid paying for probation services, thousands of courts currently outsource probation to for-profit companies which charge people exorbitant fees for their own probation. Failure to pay is treated as a violation of probation, punishable by jail time, which extorts cash from already-struggling people.

Voting Rights

In November 2018, voters in Florida passed Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to one million ex-felons (people convicted of murder or felony sex crimes did not regain their right to vote).

In 2016, more than 418,000 black people out of a black voting-age population of more than 2.3 million, or 17.9 percent of potential black voters in Florida, had finished sentences but couldn’t vote due to a felony record, according to the Sentencing Project.

What Journalists Should Cover

If all of this upsets you and leaves you feeling overwhelmed and powerless, don’t get discouraged. There are things you can do as a journalist to inform the public about what’s happening so they can vote for people who serve in everyone’s best interest.

Here are two phenomenal investigative infotainment episodes of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.” The first one explains how prosecutors and plea deals work, or rather, don’t work.

This episode shows us how powerful our elected officials are. When was the last time you saw a story about an attorney who was running for office? There are simply not enough journalists dedicated to covering these powerful people who often get away with murder while the media focuses on bigger races like senator and governor. You can take a stand in your newsroom and do some digging so your audience can actually make an informed decision about the names at the bottom of their ballot.

Let’s Talk About Privilege

As a journalist, you can’t cover injustice without understanding privilege. We’re all privileged in one way or another. But I’m talking about systematic privilege, specifically white privilege. If you’re a white journalist, do you understand your own privilege? Will you use your privilege for the greater good?

It’s discussion time. We’re going to listen to a song and some podcasts. We’ll then discuss how we can fairly and accurately report on people with different ethnicities, races and religious backgrounds.

Acknowledge your own privilege and then do something about it.

Let’s listen to this Macklemore song and discuss what it makes you feel. Does this make you feel heard? Hopeful? Guilty? Upset? Why?

Make newsrooms look like the communities they cover.

Newsrooms are still much whiter than their readers, viewers and listeners. Yes, white people can and must cover minorities. But acknowledging your privilege will only take us so far. We need to improve hiring practices so our journalists, and managers, actually represent the people.

New Report Examines Diversity in America’s Newsrooms

Listen and discuss:

Tanzina Vega: ‘Change Is Happening’ In Newsrooms

Listen and discuss:

Additional Resources

Published by JeanetteAbrahamsen

I am an instructional designer and TV news instructor at the University of South Florida. My passion for innovating learning led me to pursue my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Instructional Technology. I love creating media to enhance eLearning and foster online engagement. I teach students to create multimedia stories for broadcast, web and social media platforms. I lead the Florida Focus class where students produce daily news shows that air on Tampa's PBS station. My reporting classes collaborated with Tampa's NPR station to produce award-winning stories. I am an Emmy Award-winning journalist. I produced thousands of hours of TV news in some of America's largest media markets at Tampa's NBC station, San Diego's ABC station and the San Diego Union-Tribune. I also produced immersive 360-degree virtual tours at the University of South Florida and reported for Hashtag Our Stories.

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