Study Finds Racial Disparities in Incarceration Persist


African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of whites, according to a new report documenting rates of incarceration across the country.

Released yesterday, the Sentencing Project’s latest report found that, despite promising reforms leading to reductions in the prison population, racial and ethnic disparities in the prison system continue to undermine perceptions of justice in America. Across the country, African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the rate for whites. In Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin, the disparity is greater than 10 to 1.

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed that more than half of the prison population in twelve states (Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) is Black. At the top of this list is Maryland, where the prison population is 72 percent Black.

Nationwide, Latinos are imprisoned at a rate 1.4 times the rate of whites.

Based on a review of research about the causes of racial disparities in incarceration, the report concludes that “a sizable proportion of racial disparities in prison cannot be explained by criminal offending.” Criminal justice policies and practices are among the other explanations. Specifically, the study identifies harsh drug laws as an important factor. African Americans are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug offenses despite evidence that white and Black people use drugs at roughly the same rate. From 1995 to 2005, the report says, African Americans comprised about 13 percent of drug users but 36 percent of drug arrests and 46 percent of convictions for drug offenses.

Disparities are also driven by the fact that Black people in America are burdened by a presumption of guilt and dangerousness and by structural disparities. The report says that 62 percent of African Americans reside in highly segregated, inner city neighborhoods with a high degree of violent crime.

The Sentencing Project recommends reforms of harsh sentencing laws, especially drug laws, as well as training for decisionmakers to identify and mitigate the impact of implicit bias on arrest, prosecution, and sentencing decisions. The report concludes that, in this moment of national attention to criminal justice reforms, more attention must be paid to the “chronic racial disparities that pervade state prisons.”

African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of whites.