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Sentencing Project Proposes Remedies for Racial Disparities Behind Bars

In a report published on October 11, 2023, the nonprofit Sentencing Project noted that the lifetime risk of incarceration for Black men in the U.S. fell from one in three in 1981 to one in five in 2021. However, all races benefitted from the decline in total U.S. incarceration from its 2009 peak, the report pointed out, and Blacks as a whole still suffer an incarceration rate almost five times as high as the rate for whites. Why?

The first problem identified is that seemingly “race-neutral” criminal justice polices really aren’t; extremely long sentences and mandatory-minimum terms are disproportionately applied to Blacks, who make up just 14% of the U.S. population but 33% of those imprisoned—including 46% of prisoners locked up 10 years or more.

Over-policing of Black neighborhoods and the anti-Black bias of many criminal justice professionals also result in more and harsher charges for Blacks. One cited study illuminated the benefits of limiting prosecutors’ ability to seat all-white juries, which are 16% more likely to convict a Black defendant than a jury that is racially diverse.

Moreover, money bail requirements and a lack of well-trained public defenders combine to criminalize poverty for criminal defendants—and Blacks earn just 50% of average earnings of whites, whose net worth is seven times greater.

In addition to ending mandatory-minimums and other sentencing enhancements, the report also recommends that more jurisdictions initiate review procedures for extremely long sentences, providing an avenue toward release for prisoners. To combat racial bias, the report commends Arizona for eliminating preemptory juror “strikes” and Michigan for reducing the number of subjective factors in parole decisions. More states and localities could eliminate money bail, the report added, and invest more in public defender office budgets.

As non-white defendants move through the criminal justice system, each of these steps would help slow the accumulation of racial disparities, which the report likens to an “avalanche.” See: One in Five, Racial Disparity in Imprisonment—Causes and Remedies, Sentencing Project (October 2023).  

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