Incarceration: Racial Disparities Persist, Despite Progress

By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Newswire Sr Natl Correspondent

A recent report from the Sentencing Project has revealed significant strides have been made in reducing racial inequities in incarceration over the past two decades. However, the study also warns that ongoing pushback from policymakers threatens to impede further progress.

The report, titled “One in Five: Ending Racial Inequity in Incarceration,” highlights a notable decline in the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for Black men born in 2001 compared to those born in 1981. While one in three Black men born in 1981 faced the prospect of imprisonment, the figure has now dropped to one in five for those born in 2001.

The authors attribute the decline to reforms, particularly in drug law enforcement and sentencing for drug and property offenses. Urban areas, predominantly home to communities of color, have significantly reduced imprisonment rates.

Despite these positive trends, the report underscores that imprisonment levels remain alarmingly high nationwide, particularly for Black Americans. The authors caution that the U.S. remains entrenched in the era of mass incarceration, with a 25% reduction in the total prison population since 2009, following a nearly 700% surge in imprisonment since 1972.

The report further notes that the prison population in 2021 was nearly six times larger than it was half a century ago, before the mass incarceration era, and continued to expand in 2022. The U.S. also maintains a five to eight times higher prison and jail incarceration rate than France, Canada, and Germany. Notably, states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma have incarceration rates nearly 50% above the national average.

“The reluctance to fully correct sentencing excesses, particularly for violent crimes as supported by criminological evidence, prolongs the harm and futility of mass incarceration,” the authors concluded, emphasizing that racial equity in incarceration remains an elusive goal.

The report also highlights persistent disparities among different racial and ethnic groups. The lifetime likelihood of imprisonment for Black men born in 2001, while reduced, remains four times that of their white counterparts. Black women face an imprisonment rate 1.6 times higher than white women in 2021.

The Sentencing Project stressed that addressing these disparities necessitates a dual approach, targeting the criminal legal system and the underlying socioeconomic conditions contributing to higher crime rates among people of color.

However, the momentum for continued progress remains precarious. Recent increases in specific crime categories, particularly homicides, during the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid overdose crisis have prompted lawmakers to reevaluate criminal justice reforms. This has resulted in a bipartisan backlash, including proposals to expand mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses.

The Sentencing Project said it’s taking proactive measures to safeguard and build on the progress achieved thus far. They are producing four reports that delve into the persistence of racial injustice in the criminal legal system while highlighting promising reforms. The first installment provides an overview of prison and jail incarceration trends and community supervision, with subsequent reports focusing on police interactions, crime rates, and critical drivers of disparity within the criminal legal system. “These reports aim to contribute to ongoing efforts to achieve a more equitable and just criminal justice system for all Americans,” the authors wrote.

Despite recent changes that have decreased the number of people involved in the criminal justice system and have addressed racial and ethnic disparities, “we are still in a time where mass incarceration is a major issue,” the authors continued. They affirmed that excessive control and punishment, especially targeting people of color, do not help achieve community safety goals and harm families and communities. While people of color face higher crime rates than whites, they tend to be less supportive of stringent crime control measures when compared to whites, the authors asserted.

To address the injustices outlined in this report, the authors said there remains a need for policies and practices changes that unfairly affect communities of color, and authorities should seek to reduce excessive punishment for all individuals. “The United States would still have an incarceration crisis,” University of Pennsylvania professor Marie Gottschalk wrote in the report, “even if it were locking up African Americans at ‘only’ the rate at which whites in the United States are currently incarcerated—or if it were not locking up any African Americans at all.”

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