Black-White Gap in U.S. Prison System Narrowed Since 2000, Researchers Find

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Illustration courtesy Prison Policy Initiative

Although African Americans are disproportionately the largest group of individuals in the U.S. justice system, the racial disparity between blacks and whites has significantly narrowed in the last two decades, according to a study released Tuesday.

The study, commissioned by the Council on Criminal Justice, found that historic racial and ethnic gaps have declined across U.S. prison, jail, probation, and parole populations between 2000 and 2016, the most recent year for which combined federal and state data were available.

The declines occurred across all major crime categories, with the most dramatic decline occurring in drug offenses, where the incarceration rate for African Americans dropped from 15 times the rate for whites to just under five times in the past decade and a half.

The cover design of the report was created by adults in custody working at Oregon Corrections Enterprises (OCE).

The disparities between Hispanics and whites similarly dropped, with the most significant decline occurring in parole populations, from 3.3 times the rate for whites in 2000 to 1.4 by 2014.

The study, led by William J. Sabol, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics and a criminologist at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, did not analyze the reasons for the shrinking racial gap. But it noted that there had been significant changes in the way different categories of offenses were processed since 2000.

That was especially apparent in the number of African Americans arrested for drug crimes, which dropped from a peak of 2,177 per 100,000 in 2000 to 1,274 per 100,000 in 2016—a decline of about 41 per cent.

Notably, while arrests for drug dealing or drug manufacturing steadily declined from 2000, arrests for drug possession began to decline after 2006, when many states began to ease crackdowns for marijuana possession in response to the growing legalization movement.

Nevertheless, the study pointed out, “The effects of criminal justice case processing vary by race and type of crime, making it difficult to point to a single factor that accounts for race-specific changes in imprisonment.”

The study was co-authored by Thaddeus L. Johnson, a PhD candidate in Criminology and Criminal Justice at Georgia State University, and Alexander Caccavale, a research analyst for the Atlanta Police Foundation.

The authors made clear that racial disparities remain a critical problem in the system, but the new figures represent a significant change. Over the past 40 years, overall black incarceration rates have ranged from about six to eight times those of whites.

The narrowing of the racial gap has been particularly noteworthy in the population of jails and state prisons. The number of adult blacks held in state facilities dropped 10 percent between 2000 and 2016, from 589,499 to 527,675.

The gap between blacks and whites held in jails declined by 42 percent.

At the same time, the number of whites in state prisons rose by 18.6 percent in the same period, from 452,232 to 536,183.

The authors also found similar, but smaller, declines in racial disparities in the federal prison population. The black-white gap dropped from 8.4 to 1 to seven to one between 2001 and 2017. In the same period the Hispanic rate declined from 7.3 prisoners for every white prisoner, to 4.6-to one.

Despite the diminishing racial incarceration gap, the authors also found that the decrease in the black incarceration rate was “offset in part by an increase in the expected time to be served upon admission (to prison), which increased for both blacks and whites.”

Shrinking Racial Gap for Women

Breaking the figures down by gender, the decline in racial disparity for black women was even sharper than for black men. In 2000, there were six African-American women for every white woman in the justice system. By 2016, that figure dropped to two African-American women for every white woman behind bars.

The number of black women in state prisons fell by half during that period to 12,000, while the number of white women increased from 25,000 to 60,000.

The “sizeable” narrowing of the incarceration gap between black and white women was driven by a “significant decline in the number of black women in prison for drug crimes, coupled with rising numbers of white women held for drug, violent and property offenses,” the study said.

Another factor which may have driven the declines in racial disparity was the decrease in rates under which blacks and Hispanics are held under correctional control, the study said. Probation rates for blacks and Hispanics declined by one-third or more between 2000 and 2016.

Similar drops in racial disparity occurred for property crimes and violent offenses, powered by lower rates of African-American commitment to prison for those categories, the study said.

“For all violent crimes (murder, robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault, rape and other sexual offenses) combined, the black and white imprisonment rates diverged,” the study said.

Turning specifically to Hispanic imprisonment, the study noted that incarceration rates for that group had fallen as the U.S. Hispanic population had grown. Among the most notable findings for that group, the gap between Hispanics and whites under parole supervision fell from 3.6-to-one to 1.4-to-one.

The authors said they hoped their findings would trigger deeper research into the causes of racial disparity in the prison and corrections systems.

“Additional data and research are essential to understand why precisely these trends are occurring, nationally and within state and local jurisdictions,” they wrote. “In particular, findings of racial disparities may reflect the disparate impact of criminal histories.

“Under this scenario, racially neutral sentences and parole decisions based on criminal histories may perpetuate disparate practices that occur earlier in the criminal justice process, and contribute to racial disparities in length of stay.”

The main findings and full study are available here.