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Policy Solution

Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Jails

  • Jessica Eaglin
  • Danyelle Solomon
Published: June 25, 2015

People of color are overrepresented in our criminal justice system. One in three African American men born today will be incarcerated in his lifetime. In some cities, African Americans are ten times more likely to be arrested when stopped by police. With the national debate national focused on race, crime, and punishment, criminal justice experts are examining how to reduce racial disparities in our prisons and jails, which often serve as initial entry points for those who become entangled in the criminal justice system.

This report, which relies on input from 25 criminal justice leaders, pinpoints the drivers of racial disparities in our jails lays out common sense reforms to reduce this disparity, including increasing public defense representation for misdemeanor offenses, encouraging prosecutors to prioritize serious and violent offenses, limiting the use of pretrial detention, and requiring training to reduce racial bias for all those involved in running our justice system.

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By Anthony W. Batts, Police Commissioner for the City of Baltimore. He previously served as Chief of Police for Oakland and Long Beach, California.

Public safety is of paramount importance in creating healthy communities. Because of the work of countless law enforcement professionals, crime today is down to a level not seen since the 1960s. In the last 25 years, violent and property crime has declined almost 50 percent.

Yet along with this crime reduction have come inadvertent and costly consequences. Since 1990, the United States increased its incarcerated population by 61 percent. There are now 2.3 million Americans behind bars. If current trends persist, one in three African American boys born today will be incarcerated in his lifetime. Not only do we live in an era of reduced crime, we also live in an era of excessive incarceration.

We lock up too many — especially people of color — for too long, without a clear public safety rationale. Over incarceration and racially disparate law enforcement is counterproductive to the goal of improving public safety. These policies call into question the legitimacy of the justice system. In Baltimore City, and in many urban minority communities, there is an inherent mistrust of people who wear police uniforms. By reversing these trends, we can actually better protect and serve our communities. Key reforms will restore the public’s trust in government. Rebuilding trust will increase the likelihood that citizens will work with law enforcement — police, prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials — to keep our neighborhoods safe and vibrant.

Since beginning my career as a police officer over three decades ago, I have witnessed various changes in our field: from the dramatic decrease in crime, to a concentration on crime prevention, to today’s new focus on reducing incarceration and racial disparities while preserving public safety. How we police — and whom we police — is the subject of an important national conversation. A crucial part of this analysis is the role of race in our justice system.

My experiences growing up a young black kid in South Central Los Angeles inform my view on this vital topic. I remember asking my mother whether any of our leaders cared about the black kids dying in our streets. My mother encouraged me to be a change agent. I have dedicated my career to that goal. How can we move forward to break harmful trends and reinforce beneficial ones? How can we keep our country safe while reducing incarceration and racial injustices in our system?

We can do what works. We can learn from successes based on tested innovations. We can improve our policies, practices, and every day decisions. In everything from policing to pretrial detention to prosecution to probation and parole, modern data-driven techniques can reduce crime without overrelying on incarceration. These techniques can also reduce racial disparities.

This report provides recommendations to reduce racial disparities in jails. It provides local actors with a roadmap to modernize how we enforce criminal laws. We can and should move away from selective enforcement and harsh punishment — which research tells us does not work — toward a system that is more effective and just. This important report provides a path to that goal.