The Foucauldian Perspective on Institutional Racism and Criminal Justice


This scientific paper aims to examine the Foucauldian perspective and the relationship of this concept with the phenomenon of power, its implications, racial bias, and its impact on criminology. Foucault’s influence on the understanding of power goes beyond the assessment of players who use authority as a mechanism of coercion. It even goes beyond the structural features where those actors function, towards the notion that power is everywhere. Moreover, it includes diffused and exemplified in discourse, knowledge, and “regimes of truth,” which are all forms of power that exist in the world. For Foucault, power is what distinguishes us from other schools of thought (Dean, 2018). The Foucauldian perspective is a drastic departure from preceding conceptions of power. In essence, the perspective focuses on diffusing the power as opposed to concentrating it or embodying it. Rather than perceiving power as concentrated in a few hands, Foucault sees it as being distributed and widespread, rather than the “episodic or sovereign” actions of dominion or coercion commonly associated with it.

Thus, in this view, power does not exist as an entity or an institution but rather as the power that emanates from all over. Furthermore, the application of this particular theory presents an interesting development in the issue of institutional racism in the criminal justice system (Bosworth and Hoyle, 2021). The idea of institutional racism is viewed as the unfavorable effects of a company’s activities, and policies are thus understood as a mix of the occupational culture of an organization, as well as discriminatory behaviors (whether purposeful or unintentional). It is obvious in informal cultural practices, such as accepted assumptions, norms, and preconceptions about minorities; alternatively, it is shown via habitual actions, where the impact or result may be prejudiced even if it is inadvertent.

Considering the consequences that may arise from being on the unfavorable side of the criminal justice system, institutional racism becomes extremely detrimental to the populace being affected. The following paper will assess the implications that the Foucauldian perspective has on the notion of institutional racism in the criminal justice system. Thus, providing a deeper understanding of its persistence and the failure of diminishing these practices significantly.

Racial Bias and Foucauldian Perspective in Criminal Justice Institutions

The study looks to philosopher Michel Foucault, who claims that power is omnipresent, as a way to broaden the discussion of how racism is reproduced in the criminal justice system. To express how institutions impose control over the individuals disguised as promotion of communal good, he invented the word bio-power (to have authority over others) (Phillips, 2011; Zaidi et al., 2021). It was in Foucault’s writings that he studied how control over people is employed in a specific social setting. For instance, Foucault examined how speech about sanity versus insanity, criminal activity, moral versus immoral actions, and the structuring of these topics permits people to be controlled and manipulated by external forces. These “normal” human bodies become submissive and are used to disqualify those who do not match socially accepted definitions or classifications of what is “normal” (Phillips, 2011; Zaidi et al., 2021).

It is not simply about governments or organizations exerting influence on society from a macro level, according to Foucault’s theory of power. On the other hand, the micro-level of authority is reinforced by people between officers, trainees, professors, students, and so on (Zaidi et al., 2021). The “dispositif,” as Foucault refers to it, is sustained through these scattered, decentralized networks. Individual actors (e.g., teachers, administrators, and students) who support the development and reinforcement of institutional ideas and standards disseminate power across institutions under this paradigm (Zaidi et al., 2021). For instance, by showing only photographs of Black persons during training sessions on street crime, Foucault argues that these preferential actions legitimize the perception that violent criminals are exclusively found in certain racial communities. This leads to racial profiling, an over-emphasis on particular individuals who may not be involved in any form of the crime being discussed.

Considering the current statistics of incarceration in the UK, the overall populace based on race is divided as follows; in 2019 over 85% of the population in the UK is white, while the overall Black population amounts to only 3.4%. However, when considering the number of people imprisoned in 2020, it was noted that around 27% of the total offenders in prison belonged to ethnic minorities like Black, Asians, Mixed, and others (who collectively account for only 14.4% of the total population in the UK). Furthermore, as showcased in the figure, the overall rates of arrest per 1000 people were not in favor of the ethnic minorities.

Institutional Racism and Criminal Justice
Figure 1. Institutional Racism and Criminal Justice

Furthermore, taking another example of the police, in order to highlight the issue in the criminal justice system, one should consider stop and search statistics. In 2020, it was noted that the police in England and Wales made almost 570000 stops and searches. As per the statistics, it was held that 54 per 1000 individuals were of African descent while only 6 in 1000 were white. These statistics further promote the idea presented by the Foucauldian Perspective that more than just policies or regulations, the individual conduct of officers is what leads to the persistence of institutional racism. Meaning, that stop and search policies implemented by the police are biased and target ethnic minorities much more when compared to white citizens. However, if the individual officer was not indoctrinated to believe that Black car owners should be stopped more than any other race, then the policies would not be as influential as they currently are.

Women are far less likely than males to be involved in the criminal justice system (, 2021). In spite of this, women are much more likely than white women to be put in prison. African-American women constitute three percent of the general population, whereas eight percent of those incarcerated are black (Ministry of Justice, 2021). In the 2018/19 school year, black women were twice as likely as white women to be detained (Ethnicity Facts and Figures, 2020). Other criminal justice results are not typically broken down by gender or ethnicity in government statistics, which is a problem. Nonetheless, in 2016, the Ministry of Justice issued research that contrasted the results of Black and white women who appeared before the Crown Court. Black women were 29 percent more likely than white women to be remanded to prison, and they were 25 percent more likely than white women to get a jail term.

For Black youth, the level of involvement with the criminal justice system is significantly higher, particularly at the more severe end of the spectrum of offenses. According to the government’s ethnicity data, the proportion of white kids in custody has decreased by about 80 percent in the ten years leading up to 2018/19. (Ethnicity Facts and Figures, 2020b). The number of Black children in custody decreased by just about half as much as the overall number of children.

In November 2020, one out of every three children in jail was a Black kid, compared to less than one out of every five children in the general population (Youth Custody Service, 2021). Kids from African ethnic backgrounds, like mixed-race children with the Black Caribbean or African parents, have a custody rate that is at least three times higher than that of White British children, according to recent statistical research that has linked administrative data on education to criminal justice data (Bowyer et al., 2021).

Implications of Foucauldian Perspective

Following the theory presented by Foucault, it becomes apparent that the notion of institutional racism is one that is perpetuated by individuals, environmental factors, and exposure to specific viewpoints by the general populace. It is noted that in recent times, the criminal justice system as a whole has sought to improve its operations by reducing the overall systematic racism.

This failure to counter policies or regulations that may be racist towards ethnic minorities can be due to the personal biases that law officials may have. Considering that a police officer has been taught in the training academy that black people tend to be more violent criminals or the same as a lawyer, their perception will be tainted. After that, even if there are new policies introduced in these training/educational facilities the law officers who are working in the field will not change their behavior as they still have those prejudices. Therefore, it becomes vital to help the people behind the titles, whether it be a lawyer, judge, or policeman/woman, to become disillusioned with the system they are part of.

Therefore, aside from changing the training protocols and education associated with the criminal justice system, the people who have passed through the academic side of things have to be considered. A new officer has been taught not to racially profile individuals; however, if the person is placed under a superior officer who does take part in racist activities, he will pass them

on to the new recruit. Thus, it is proposed that in order to lower the overall cases of institutional racism in the criminal justice system, rehabilitation programs have to be introduced where experienced officers and other officials are taught how to overcome their biases. Furthermore, these programs can also help to make people become aware of the inherent bias that they might not have been aware of prior.


According to the Foucauldian Perspective, power is not a thing or an organization but rather the power that comes from everywhere. And the application of this specific theoretical approach to institutional racism in the criminal justice system is an exciting advance. Racism may be seen as a combination of workplace culture and discriminatory behavior, which is why the term “institutional racism” is used to describe this combination of factors.

In Foucault’s theory of power, it is not only about the macro-level effect of governments and organizations on society. On the other hand, persons between officers, trainees, professors, students, and so on strengthen the micro-level of power. Through these dispersed, decentralized networks. Foucault refers to the “dispositif.” Those individuals who promote the formation and reinforcement of institutional norms can spread power among institutions under this paradigm. According to Foucault’s theory, exhibiting only photos of Black people during street crime training courses legitimizes the impression that violent offenders are confined to specific racial groups by virtue of their activities. Overemphasis on certain persons who may not be connected in any way to the crime under discussion leads to racial profiling. Thus, in order to counter the institutional racism in the criminal justice system, education and informing people about personal racist beliefs and the influence it has on the institution.


Bosworth, M., and Hoyle, C. 2021. What is criminology. Oxford University Press.

Bowyer, A., Dorsett, R. & Thomson, D. 2021. ‘The risk of experiencing custody aged 16-18’, FFT Education Datalab.

Dean, M., 2018. Foucault and the neoliberalism controversy. Cahill, D., Cooper, M., Konings, M. & Primrose, D. (Eds.), Sage, pp. 40-54.

Ethnicity Facts and Figures., 2020. Arrests.

Ethnicity Facts and Figures., 2020b. Young people in custody., 2021. Making Black lives matter in the criminal justice system/A guide for antiracist lawyers. Howardleague.Org. Web.

Ministry of Justice., 2021. Offender management statistics quarterly: July to September 2020. Web.

Phillips, C., 2011. Institutional racism and ethnic inequalities: An expanded multilevel framework. Journal of social policy, 40(1), pp.173-192.

Posick, C., and Rocque, M. 2018. Great debates in criminology. Routledge.

Youth Custody Service., 2021. Monthly Youth Custody Report November 2020, Table 2.7.

Zaidi, Z., Bush, A.A., Partman, I.M. and Wyatt, T.R., 2021. From the “top-down” and the “bottom-up”: Centering Foucault’s notion of biopower and individual accountability within systemic racism. Perspectives on Medical Education, 10(2), pp.73-75.

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LawBirdie. "The Foucauldian Perspective on Institutional Racism and Criminal Justice." July 18, 2023.