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Incarceration Numbers Falling, Especially for Blacks

by Christopher Zoukis

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the imprisonment rate for blacks is declining and has been doing so for many years. But the BJS data also indicates that the trend is headed in the opposite direction when it comes to white incarceration rates.

The change is most pronounced for female offenders, where the incarceration rate for black women has fallen 47 percent since 2000 while the rate for white women has soared 56 percent in the same period.

But the change in male incarceration rates is also remarkable, with the rate for black males dropping 22 percent since 2000, though the rate for white males has increased 4 percent during that time period. Since men make up a far larger share of the prison population than women – about 10 times as large – the incarceration rate for males changes more slowly.

These developments have cut the racial disparity in overall incarceration rates by two-thirds for women and one-quarter for men. Still, both black men and women remain 5.1 times more likely to be incarcerated as whites.

Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are nearly six times as many whites as blacks in the United States, of both genders. Yet whites outnumber blacks in federal prisons by just 1.5-to-1, a ratio that falls closer to 1-to-1 in state prisons.

According to the Washington Post, other reports indicate there has been a similar pattern in city and county jail populations; the percentage of blacks held in local jails has declined from 41.3 percent in 2000 to 35.4 percent in 2014.

The Post also published the findings of a 2011 report by Marc Mauer, director of The Sentencing Project, and Georgetown University law professor David Cole, which detailed higher arrest rates and longer sentences for black men compared to white men.

Other factors contributing to the over-representation of blacks in the criminal justice system include racial profiling. A 2011 Police-Public Contact Survey  conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice noted that black drivers are 31 percent more likely to be stopped by the police than whites. Blacks are also twice as likely to be searched during routine traffic stops.

Given those factors, the narrowing of the black-white gap in incarceration rates is “one of the most surprising pattern of results I have seen in corrections in a long time,” stated Fordham University professor John Pfaff. He added that “law enforcement attitudes getting tougher in rural areas and softer in urban areas may be contributing to this change.”

Another factor may be “changes in drug use and enforcement over the past 15 years,” according to Adam Gelb, who directs the public safety performance project of the Pew Charitable Trusts. He said the methamphetamine, prescription opioid and heroin epidemics have had a greater impact on whites, unlike the crack cocaine epidemic that resulted in increased incarceration rates among blacks in the 1980s and 1990s.

Stanford Law School professor Joan Petersilia noted another possible cause: “Sex offenders, who are disproportionately white and tend to receive long sentences, are a new target for the war on crime.” Twice as many white prisoners have been convicted of sex crimes (16.4 percent) as have black prisoners (8 percent).

Although the overall prison population in the U.S. has declined slightly over the past few years, more than 2.2 million people remain imprisoned in state and federal correctional facilities, local jails and other detention centers as of 2016, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. 


Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics,,,,

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