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Sentencing Project Finds “Important Inroads” Against Mass Incarceration, Racial Inequality Behind Bars

October 11, 2023, the Sentencing Project reported that the share of Black men who will experience incarceration at some point in life has declined from one in three for those born in 1981 to one in five for those born in 2001 and just now entering full adulthood. But while calling this trend an “important inroad,” the “persistence of racial injustice in the criminal legal system” remains the top takeaway from One in Five: Ending Racial Inequity in Incarceration.

After decades of mass incarceration, the report notes recent reforms that offer hope. The U.S. prison population in 2021 had shrunk by 25% from its 2009 peak, thanks to reduced penalties for drug and property crimes. Progress is uneven, though, since Black Americans are still imprisoned at five times the rate of whites. However, decarceration efforts have reduced the Black prison population by 39% percent since its peak, including a 70% plunge since 2000 in the number of Black women in prison.

Despite these declines, the road to true equity is long. Black men were still imprisoned at 5.5 times the rate of white men in 2021, and a Black male born in 2001 is four times more likely to face imprisonment in his lifetime than a white male. Black women fared better, with an imprisonment rate 1.6 times the rate of white women in 2021.

Jail populations have also shrunk, falling 19% since 2008, with the biggest drops again notched by non-­white groups. But like the inequalities in prison incarceration numbers, Black and American Indian jail imprisonment rates remain stubbornly high. Community supervision traps millions more with expensive requirements that disproportionately affect people of color.

Youth incarceration has shown progress, with a 77% drop since 2000 while racial disparities also narrowed. Black youth in 2019 were 4.4 times as likely to be incarcerated in the juvenile justice system as their white peers. American Indian youth were at their peak level of disparity in 2019, being 3.3 times as likely to be incarcerated as white youth. The report cites a need for further youth decarceration given evidence that incarceration is often neither necessary or effective for youth, and well-­designed alternative-­to-­incarceration programs produce better public safety outcomes than locking kids up.

Although there has been a long-­term crime drop in the U.S., the report warns that progress in decarceration faces an uncertain future. Any uptick in crime rates is likely to spark political backlash and threaten further progress. Already, critics are pushing to roll back reforms in places like New York City and Washington, D.C. Even after Florida voters re-­enfranchised felons, GOP state lawmakers moved the goalposts to require they first pay off all fees and costs, though the state often can’t say just how much that is.

Nationwide, the opioid crisis threatens to trigger a return to harsh mandatory-­minimum sentences, further jeopardizing decarceration and racial justice gains. The report cautions policymakers to resist the temptation to return to failed past strategies and double-­down on evidence-­based solutions that prioritize public safety, equity and community well-­being.   


Source: The Sentencing Project

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