Rising White Incarceration Reduced Racial Gap in Jails: Study

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Illustration by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

A rise in jail incarceration rates for white Americans, particularly in rural counties and smaller metropolitan jurisdictions, has significantly narrowed the racial gap in the nation’s 3,000 jails, according to the latest in a series of studies by the Vera Institute of Justice.

While the study said that African-Americans are still “over-represented” in jails—they are 3.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites—it found that the jailed white population had doubled between 1990 and 2013.

The black jail incarceration rate declined by 20 per cent nationally between 2005 and 2013, shrinking the disparity between black and white jailed populations by nearly half in that period. But, effectively, the shift only brought the gap between blacks and whites back to where it was in 1990, the study said.

“In 2013, the black jail incarceration rate was relatively the same as it was almost 25 years ago — with 904 black people in jail per 100,000 black people in the community in 1990 compared to 915 per 100,000 in 2013,” said the study released today.

The authors called the continued disparities “alarming given recent efforts across the nation to downsize the overall footprint of local jail incarceration.”

The report, entitled “Divided Justice,” was written by Ram Subramanian, Kristine Riley, and Chris Mai, and released as part of a series commissioned by the “Safety and Justice Challenge, an initiative funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to reduce over-incarceration by “changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.”

The authors said the reasons for the shift in racial composition were unclear, but they pointed out that the rise in white jail numbers, particularly in small and rural areas, paralleled the spread of the opioid epidemic, which has ravaged white populations in those areas, and brought many into contact with the justice system.

According to the study, the number of whites in jail doubled from 163,000 to 330,000 between 1990 and 2013. The increases were seen largely in smaller cities and rural countries in all areas of the country, but the report added that “growth in the South was so great that by 2013, the South held around the same number of white people in jail on any given day as the other three regions combined.”

The authors also suggested that the growth in white incarceration could reflect large numbers of Hispanics jailed for violations of federal immigration laws, noting that many jails failed to keep accurate demographic records that distinguished Latinos from the overall white population.

Another hypothesis offered by the researchers for the change in racial composition of the jail population was the variation in criminal justice resources available in different jurisdictions. Conditions that might account for the differences included relative access to courts, the availability of pretrial counseling and public defender services, and treatment for substance abuse—all of which could result in “different racial outcomes depending on where people live.”

The authors said racial disparities in incarceration needed to be addressed directly by policymakers.

“Wrestling with the issue of race and incarceration remains uncomfortable ground because it forces people to confront a deep legacy of racism in this country, past and present,” the authors said. “This lack of direct inquiry has compounded the existing dearth of knowledge about why racial disparities continue to exist in local jail incarceration.”

The complete study can be downloaded here.

Readers’ comments are welcome.

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