Racial Disparities in U.S. Prisons Decline

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For the last 15 years, racial disparities in U.S. prisons have been declining, The Marshall Project reports in collaboration with the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, based on reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system. Between 2000 and 2015, the imprisonment rate of black men dropped by more than 24 percent. At the same time, the white male rate increased slightly. Among women, the trend is more dramatic. From 2000 to 2015, the black female imprisonment rate dropped by nearly 50 percent; during the same period, the white female rate rose by 53 percent. Similar patterns appear to hold for local jails, although the data are less reliable . Since 2000, the number of blacks in local detention has decreased from 256,300 to 243,400, while the number of whites rose from 260,500 to 335,100.

The narrowing of the gap between white and black incarceration rates is “definitely optimistic news,” said Fordham law Prof. John Pfaff, “But the racial disparity remains so vast that it’s pretty hard to celebrate. How exactly do you talk about ‘less horrific?’ ” Adam Gelb of the Pew Charitable Trusts says, “If we want to continue or accelerate [the trend], we need to acknowledge it and figure out why it’s happening.” Among reasons for the change: Crime, arrests and incarceration are declining overall; the war on drugs has shifted from focusing on crack and marijuana to meth and opioids; whites have faced declining socioeconomic prospects, leading to more criminal justice involvement, and more criminal justice reform has been happening in cities, where more black people live, but not in rural areas. Areas of change include more treatment alternatives for drug offenders, sentence reductions for inmates who participate in educational programming, reentry services for ex-inmates and reduced sanctions for technical violations of parole.

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