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The Sentencing Project Explores Impact of Race and Ethnicity on U.S. Prison System

by Derek Gilna

A June 2016 report by The Sentencing Project found that blacks are incarcerated in state prisons at much higher rates than whites – up to ten times the incarceration rate in five states. The report offered recommended solutions to what is clearly a national problem.

Fueled by “America’s failed experiment with mass incarceration,” the U.S. prison population has increased over 500% in the past forty years. Fortunately, states like New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and California have adopted meaningful reforms that reduced their incarceration rates by 20-30%, while still driving down crime rates. Sadly, despite reforms in various states, the disparity of incarceration rates of blacks and Hispanics compared to those of whites is still shocking.

The Sentencing Project describes the harsh reality: “African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 5.1 times the imprisonment of whites. In five states (Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin), the disparity is more than 10 to 1.” Additionally, according to the report, “In twelve states, more than half of the prison population is black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.” The racial disparity is greatest in Maryland, where blacks comprise 72% of the state’s prison population.

This breathtaking reality is a statistical indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system, considering that, on average, only 13% of the nation’s population is African American. With respect to Hispanics, the prison population in New Mexico is 61% Hispanic while it’s over 40% in both Arizona and California – significantly higher than the 17% of the national population that is comprised of people of Hispanic descent.

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice indicate that on average, for every 100,000 state residents, 1,408 blacks, 378 Hispanics and 275 whites are incarcerated. In Vermont, 1 in 14 state prisoners is black despite the fact that the African American population in that state is exceedingly low.

According to the report, there are three recurrent explanations for such racial disparities: “policies and practices that drive disparity; the role of implicit bias and stereotypes in decision making; and structural disadvantages in communities of color which are associated with high rates of offending and arrest.” These factors largely result from harsh drug laws, the study continued, since although blacks and whites use drugs at around the same rate, from “1995 to 2005, African Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of drug users but 36% of drug arrests and 46% of those convicted of drug offenses.”

Finally, The Sentencing Project stated there is much progress to be made in reducing “implicit bias,” where “people of color are frequently given harsher sanctions because they are perceived as imposing a greater threat to public safety and are therefore deserving of greater social control and punishment.” The report concludes by noting that although many states have made progress in reducing mass incarceration, there should be more “attention to the chronic racial disparities that pervade state prisons,” and state officials need to embrace “serious, sustainable reforms ... needed to dismantle the current system of mass incarceration.” 


Sources: “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” The Sentencing Project (June 2016);