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Racial Disparities in Incarceration in the United States

The United States needs prison reform, with a significant concern being the disproportionate representation of individuals from racial and ethnic minority groups within the prison population. In the last half-century, the number of inmates has nearly quadrupled. As of 2018, there were 6.8 million inmates, with African Americans constituting 34% (Enders 2). To put these figures in context, there were 77% white inmates, 22% black inmates, and 1% people of other races or ethnicities admitted to US prisons in 1930. In the year 2018, the figures were almost reversed: 62.6% of all inmates in federal and state prisons were Latino or African American (Enders 2). African Americans are disproportionately affected by police stops, arrests, and detentions, as well as sentencing severity, when compared to whites. Why do we live in an era when racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration have emerged as a pressing civil rights issue? What accounts for such vast differences? The high incarceration rates among African-American males are a complex issue rooted in a combination of historical, socioeconomic, and systemic factors.

The enduring consequences of slavery can be identified as a critical factor in the historical origins of incarceration among African Americans since they persistently encounter discriminatory practices and structural prejudices that profoundly influence their interactions within the criminal justice system. Racial and ethnic prejudices exert influence within the framework of the criminal justice system. Kovera (17) highlights the parallel between individuals’ perceptions of Black individuals and other individuals of color and their perceptions of danger and public safety concerns. Racism has a much more significant impact on white people’s punishment preferences than it does on black people’s. Slavery and housing policies that denied African Americans the right to own a home are just two examples of white supremacy’s many manifestations in the United States’ long history of oppression of Black people. The current incarnation can be characterized as mass incarceration. African-American children as early as nine years old have expressed concerns about police brutality. Even if they have not yet encountered police, previous generations’ horrific events are thought to be passed down through the ages (Omori & Nick 678). Key decision-makers racial assumptions disproportionately impact people who interact with the justice system. In studies examining presentence reports, for example, researchers discovered that people of color face harsher punishments disproportionately. This is based on the belief that they pose a greater risk to society and should be subjected to stricter social control and punishment (Omori & Nick 678). Furthermore, survey results show that people of all races perceive African Americans to be “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal (Franklin & Tri Keah 4).” Major crimes committed by people of color, particularly Black-on-White violent crimes, are overrepresented in media depictions of crime, distorting reality. The majority of people get their information about crime from the media, inaccurate reporting has a direct impact on public opinion on crime policy. While changes in media coverage that paint a more realistic picture of crime rates, offenders, and victims may change public opinion on the subject, they have little impact on whether or not this public opinion ultimately shapes policy preferences.

The policies and practices that support the criminal justice system, whether formal or informal, impact a person’s level of involvement. Racial considerations may be involved at various stages of the system. As people move through the system, from arrest to incarceration and beyond, inequalities grow. The imprisonment rate has seen a significant increase over the last four decades due to the implementation of stringent punishment measures, some of which were enacted in reaction to declining crime rates in the early 1990s. The occurrence of fatal incidents involving unarmed individuals of Black ethnicity at the hands of law enforcement personnel, with other instances of police misconduct, serves as evidence for the enduring presence of prejudice throughout both the criminal justice system and police engagements with the general populace. Disparities become most apparent during first interactions with law enforcement, particularly in cases involving minor crimes and regions subject to targeted rules that provide a significant degree of discretion. Various stages of the system impact the racial makeup of state prisons. Some factors, such as the disproportionate use of pre-trial detention for Black defendants due to income inequality, contribute to disparities, which increases the likelihood of conviction and increases the length of prison sentences for those who are detained pending trial (King & Michael 372). According to King and Michael’s research on 40 state sentencing procedures, racial and ethnic factors, in addition to the more obvious factors of crime severity and criminal history, impact sentencing decisions. The biased responses of the criminal justice system increase the likelihood of incarceration for Black Americans. When racial factors are taken into account, prosecutorial charging decisions disproportionately impact Blacks. Prosecutors charge Black defendants more frequently than white defendants in similar situations under state habitual offender laws (King & Michael 376). All of these things are more common in minority neighborhoods, adding to the societal disparities that lead to people being in contact with the criminal justice system.

The third reason for the persistence of racial disparities in state prisons is that people of color face structural disadvantages even before they enter the criminal justice system. According to this theory, prison disparities are caused in part by racial inequalities in poverty, unemployment, housing, and family dynamics, all of which disproportionately affect African-American communities (Vincent & Jodi 8). Crime rates differ for reasons other than racial identity. Because of their unique socioeconomic vulnerabilities, African Americans are disproportionately concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, where they face higher crime rates overall and a disproportionately high rate of violent crime. When it comes to violent crime, 62% of African Americans live in segregated inner-city neighborhoods. In contrast, most white people live in more affluent neighborhoods where it is much lower (Martinez et al., 865). The effects of structural disadvantage begin at a young age. When racial disparities in juvenile crime rates are considered, it does not necessarily follow that minority youth are more likely to engage in antisocial behavior. Instead, it is critical to recognize that inherent racial inequalities in American society contribute to disparities in both the likelihood of criminal behavior and the resources available to those who choose not to engage in it. Racial and class inequalities in structural elements, in particular, make minority youth more vulnerable to challenges such as unstable family systems, exposure to domestic and community violence, higher unemployment rates, and higher rates of school dropout. All of these things are more common in minority neighborhoods, adding to the societal disparities that lead to people breaking the law.

Although racial disparities in incarceration existed prior to the war on drugs, the latter exacerbated them, resulting in a 17-year spike in the disproportionate number of African Americans serving time in state and federal prisons. Tough-on-crime policies implemented by the government in the 1990s in response to the growing war on drugs resulted in longer prison sentences for less serious offenders. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, enacted in response to the Reagan administration’s “get tough” on violent offenders policies and widespread fear of crime, abolished the federal parole system and established the Federal Sentencing Commission. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 in response to the political fallout from the 1986 Len Bias cocaine overdose, an increase in violent crime, the proliferation of “violent crack selling gangs” and “crack babies,” and the fear of an influx of new addicts. Under the 1986 Act, there is now a one-to-one ratio between powder and crack cocaine sentencing. By introducing a five-year minimum obligatory penalty for first-time possession of five grams or more of crack cocaine, the Anti-Drug Abuse Amendment Act of 1988 broadened the net for mandatory incarceration for street traffickers and users. The penalties for drug trafficking conspiracy have also been increased. There is a significant racial disparity in less serious crimes, particularly drug-related crimes, but not in more serious crimes, such as murder. The strict drug laws are primarily to blame for racial and ethnic disparities in state prisons. Although Blacks and whites have similar rates of drug usage, Blacks have 2.5 times higher odds of being arrested for drug possession and almost four times higher odds of being arrested for drug crimes altogether (Beckett & Marco 16).


To address the systemic racial inequalities that plague the American criminal justice system, immediate and comprehensive changes are required. The disproportionate representation of African Americans in prison populations, as well as the exponential rise in incarceration rates over the last 50 years, indicate systemic issues with the criminal justice system as a whole. Due to historical injustices, systemic biases, and media misrepresentations, discriminatory practices are perpetuated at various stages, from policing to sentencing. Immediate concerns can be addressed through workforce diversification and implicit bias training, but a more comprehensive approach is required for a more profound transformation. People of color are overrepresented in the criminal justice system due to structural inequalities, and addressing these inequalities requires addressing their root causes, such as economic disparities and unequal access to education. To make a difference, we must all work together to dispel myths, promote equality, and develop policies ensuring everyone receives what they deserve.

Works Cited

Beckett, Katherine, and Marco Brydolf-Horwitz. “A kinder, gentler drug war? Race, drugs, and punishment in 21st century America.” Punishment & Society 22.4 (2020): 509-533.

Enders, Walter, Paul Pecorino, and Anne-Charlotte Souto. “Racial disparity in US imprisonment across states and over time.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 35 (2019): 365-392.

Franklin, Travis W., and Tri Keah S. Henry. “Racial disparities in federal sentencing outcomes: Clarifying the role of criminal history.” Crime & Delinquency 66.1 (2020): 3–32.

King, Ryan D., and Michael T. Light. “Have racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing declined?.” Crime and Justice 48.1 (2019): 365-437.

Kovera, Margaret Bull. “Racial disparities in the criminal justice system: Prevalence, causes, and a search for solutions.” Journal of Social Issues 75.4 (2019): 1139-1164.

Martinez, Brandon P., Nick Petersen, and Marisa Omori. “Time, money, and punishment: Institutional racial-ethnic inequalities in pre-trial detention and case outcomes.” Crime & Delinquency 66.6-7 (2020): 837-863.

Omori, Marisa, and Nick Petersen. “Institutionalizing inequality in the courts: Decomposing racial and ethnic disparities in detention, conviction, and sentencing.” Criminology 58.4 (2020): 678-713.

Vincent, Gina M., and Jodi L. Viljoen. “Racist algorithms or systemic problems? Risk assessments and racial disparities.” Criminal justice and behavior 47.12 (2020): 1576-1584.


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