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Despite Progress, Prison Racial Disparities Persist

Black incarceration is declining. But not nearly fast enough to make much of a difference.

  • James Cullen
August 19, 2016

Prison reform advoc­ates received some good news this week from The Wash­ing­ton Post: the rate of black impris­on­ment is fall­ing, and “hasn’t been this low in a gener­a­tion.” Even a “seasoned crim­in­o­lo­gist” may find it surpris­ing, Prof. Keith Humphreys of Stan­ford writes for The Post, that “the jugger­naut” of mass incar­cer­a­tion “reversed direc­tion 15 years ago.”

This is great news – but it isn’t the full story. Yes, black incar­cer­a­tion has consist­ently fallen over the last 15 years. But even after 15 years of progress, racial dispar­it­ies remain large, and are unlikely to disap­pear any time soon. The racial justice gap, and mass incar­cer­a­tion more gener­ally, will not come to an end without a profound paradigm shift.

Rate of Incar­cer­a­tion Per 100,000, By Race (2000 – 2014)

Source: Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics

Black incar­cer­a­tion fell by 23 percent between 2001 and 2014. Even so, as shown above, black men and women are still five and a half times more likely to find them­selves in prison than whites. We’re clos­ing the gap — in 2001, blacks were incar­cer­ated at nearly eight times the rate of whites — but even this does not come close to fixing a crim­inal justice system that has leaned harder on black communit­ies than white ones.

Put in context, the 23 percent decline in black incar­cer­a­tion is even less impress­ive. At the current rate of decline (about 1.8 percent per year), racial dispar­it­ies in Amer­ica’s pris­ons would disap­pear in about 100 years – by 2109. That is too slow. While any progress is welcome, the “jugger­naut” of racial bias has yet to be vanquished. Even if current policies are help­ing, they do not offer a blue­print for the bold change needed to end mass incar­cer­a­tion.

We should not be satis­fied with trends that will reduce prison dispar­it­ies in 100 years. Humphrey’s analysis of incar­cer­a­tion trends closes by noting that “the fuel of much social change is optim­ism that the future can be better than the past.” This is true – but optim­ism has to be matched by a real­istic assess­ment of defects. If the coun­try truly under­stood how unequal our systems of justice are, even despite recent progress, reformers would not be alone in “striv­ing to create a safer, more equit­able and freer soci­ety.”

(Photo: Think­stock)