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Finally, the Incarceration Race Gap Narrows
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 11/19/2018

Inmate leaning on cell Racial disparities in the U.S. prison population are hardly news to anyone, and certainly not to corrections professionals. The statistics have been so often publicized that many in the field could quote them by rote: The U.S. prison population more than quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.2 million by 2015, with minorities contributing most of that growth. The U.S. is home to 25 percent of the world’s inmates despite having only 5 percent of its population…and on and on the statistics roll.

This issue is not confined to the U.S., though given our disproportionately large prison population, we do represent an outsized share of the problem. The U.K. as of 2016 was incarcerating blacks at four times the rate of whites, and Muslims (who in many cases are members of ethnic minorities) were also disproportionately represented. Research shows that U.K. defendants are less likely to enter into plea bargains, which could stem from one or more of multiple causes, such as inferior legal representation or a lack of trust that the criminal justice system will “keep its promise” if they do, both of which are systemic problems.

The good news is that racial disparity is starting to decline, although the gap remains wide. Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that in 2016 there were 486,900 black inmates and 439,800 white inmates in federal and state facilities, a difference of 47,100 (though it is important to remember that whites constitute a significantly larger share of the total population). That difference was 94,800 in 2009 (584,800 blacks versus 490,000 whites). The black inmate population shrank by 17 percent between 2009 and 2016, while the white inmate population fell by only 10 percent.

The gap between whites and Latinos also narrowed, but only because the Latino prison population remained virtually flat (341,200 in 2009 compared to 339,300 in 2016) while the white population dropped. The trend with Latinos is somewhat concerning given that the U.S. prison population began shrinking in 2010, hence the reductions in the black and white inmate counts. The flat Latino inmate count means that they are making up a growing share of the overall population.

As mentioned previously, when examined in terms of each ethnicity’s share of the U.S. population, the numbers are much more troubling. Blacks make up the smallest share among the three groups (12 percent) yet represent the largest share of inmates (33 percent). Latinos represent 16 percent of the population but 23 percent of inmates, and whites are at 64 percent and 30 percent respectively. Still, imprisonment rates (based on the number of inmates per 100,000 population) declined for all three groups from 2009 to 2016: 25 percent for blacks, 11 percent for whites, and 19 percent for Latinos. (The Latino imprisonment rate declined even though the absolute inmate count remained basically the same because of increases in the U.S. Latino population.)

Several factors have been driving the decreases in prison populations. Some states—California most notable among them—have been pursuing measures to decrease prison overcrowding under Justice Department mandate. The Fair Sentencing Act passed during the Obama Administration reformed drug crime sentencing guidelines, with the elimination of the disparity between crack and powder cocaine foremost among them. Commutation of sentences for those sentenced under the harsher drug laws that were a product of the 1980s also contributed. Federal prosecutors began pursuing fewer mandatory minimum sentences while shifting emphasis to the worst offenders. Finally, U.S. crime rates began declining.

Blacks have benefitted more from these trends toward decreased incarceration, which is reasonable given that as a group they suffered more under the previous conditions. The narrowing of the racial divide is most visible among females: from 2000 to 2015, the imprisonment rate for black women fell 47 percent but rose by 56 percent among white women. (Females overall represent a small share of the inmate population; in 2016 the imprisonment rates among whites were 400 per 100,000 for men but 49 per 100,000 for women; among blacks, 2,415 per 100,000 for men but 96 per 100,000 for women; and among Latinos, 1,092 for men but 67 for women.) Less dramatically, the incarceration rate among black males has dropped 22 percent since 2000 but risen 4 percent among white males.

Researchers and academics have speculated on a number of possible causes. Changes in sentencing policies obviously plays a role. However, another possible cause could be changes in law enforcement attitudes, with a general relaxation in urban areas (due in part to the spotlight that has been directed toward policing in the U.S., including such policies as stop-and-frisk in New York City) but a toughening in rural areas, partly as a result of the growing prevalence of methamphetamine and opioids.

That shift in drug use patterns probably also represents a significant cause. Crack cocaine was prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s and found mostly among the black population but has now fallen into decline. At the same time, the use of methamphetamine, heroin, and especially opioids has grown dramatically, and those drugs are used far more widely among the white population, and in particular rural whites.

Finally, a Stanford law professor has proposed a third contributing factor: the new emphasis on sex crimes, which have replaced drug offenses as a high-profile target for prosecutors. Sex offenses tend to draw relatively long sentences, and sex offenders are disproportionately white. In fact, twice as many white inmates—16.4 percent—have been convicted of sex offenses as black inmates (8 percent). Similarly, Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that in 2014, more white inmates were incarcerated in state prisons for rape (78,500) than were blacks and Latinos combined (39,700 and 37,300 respectively).

Racial disparity in the U.S. prison system did not arise overnight; the contributing factors are numerous, complex, and deep-rooted. The elimination of racial disparity will not come quickly, either, but it is heartening to see that initiatives of the past decade and a half combined with shifts in popular perceptions of crime and justice are beginning to turn the tide.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Purdue University Global’s Dept. of Criminal Justice. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.


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