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As of 2010, 2 million residents in the USA reside in the country’s prisons, more than in any other country. A disproportionately high percentage of these prisoners are minorities, who represent a larger share of the prison population than of the broader population. Blacks are incarcerated at 8.2 times the rate of whites which roughly translates into the incarceration of one in every 20 black men over the age of 18, compared to one in 180 white men.
Researchers explain this racial disparity in rates of incarceration as the result of: 1) the differential treatment of minority offenders in a racially biased criminal justice system; or 2) a higher rate of participation in criminal activity among minority individuals.
The first line of thought argues that the criminal justice system is inherently biased, from the police who disproportionately arrest minorities, to judges who hand down longer sentences, to lawmakers who favor policies that ensnare minority offenders rather than whites. The process from arrest to incarceration requires agents of the criminal justice system to broadly exercise their discretion; however, with discretion comes the possibility that personal beliefs concerning race and criminality affect behavior.
There may be a self-perpetuating cycle in which the perception that most crimes are committed by minorities can produce a reality in which most minorities commit crimes. While false, these perceptions can result in increased surveillance by the police, causing a disproportionate number of minorities to be arrested and incarcerated, thereby reinforcing initial perceptions that justify policies based on race. For example, stereotypes regarding race and crime contribute to practices such as racial profiling in which the police stop, question, and search minorities based on their race/ethnicity. Even if all racial groups committed crimes at the same rate, arrest rates for minority groups would be higher, simply as a result of the increased number of interactions with the police.
Researchers often refer to the drug policies enacted in the 1980s (the ”War on drugs”) as an example of the system’s racial bias. The 100 to 1 disparity in prison arrests for crack, more often sold and used by blacks, versus powder cocaine, more often used by whites, has become a symbol of this bias. While scientists find no basis for distinguishing between the drugs, stiffer penalties for the possession of crack cocaine than for powder cocaine result in a drug-related incarceration rate for black men that is thirteen times greater than the rate for white men.
The second argument suggests that racial differences in patterns of offending and sentencing, and not a racial bias in the criminal justice system, explain the preponderance of minorities in prison. Researchers find that minorities are more likely to commit offenses that result in arrest, incarceration, and long prison sentences. This argument does not necessarily suggest that minorities are more prone to criminality, rather that the intersection of race, poverty, and urban dwelling exposes minority individuals to greater scrutiny by the police and that structural disadvantages increase both the need and the motivation to commit crime.
Spatial segregation contributes to the concentration of poor minorities in central cities which have higher crime and victimization rates while wealthier, white families are dispersed among outlying suburban areas where poverty and crime rates are lower. In poor black neighborhoods, drug transactions are more likely to be conducted on the streets, in public, and between strangers; in white neighborhoods – working class through upper class – drugs are more likely to be sold indoors, at private homes, and between trusted contacts. Statistical evidence indicates drug possession and selling cut across racial, socio-economic and geographic lines, yet because drug law enforcement resources have been concentrated in low-income, predominantly minority urban areas, drug offending whites have been relatively free from arrest.
Why do racial disparities in the criminal justice system matter? Incarceration has enduring effects on individuals, their families, and their communities; as minorities have a higher rate of incarceration and arrest than whites, these effects are predominantly concentrated in minority communities, thereby exacerbating structural disadvantages already present and making it more difficult to escape the problems that plague many of these communities – unemployment, poverty, substance use, and, criminal behavior. Upon release, ex-offenders often suffer reduced wages or unemployment furthering their families’ economic instability and contributing to cycles of reoffending. As a consequence of incarceration, individuals can be disenfranchised, losing the right to vote and to receive various public benefits that might provide economic and social support to families and communities in need.
- Bobo, L. D. & Thompson, V. (2006) Unfair by design: the war on drugs race, and the legitimacy of the criminal justice system. Social Research 73: 445—72.
- Robinson, M. (2000) The construction and reinforcement of myths of race and crime. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 6: 133-56.
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