justice observers are making note of a trend
that goes against conventional wisdom and deserves attention. The
rates of Black incarceration have dropped, while white and Latino
rates of imprisonment are on the increase.
reported that in the first decade of the 21st century, while the U.S.
prison population increased overall, a shift was taking place,
specifically a significantly lower growth rate. Between 1972 and
2010, America witnessed a 500 percent increase in its jail and prison
population, with state prisons experiencing a 12 percent annual
increase during their highest growth years in the 1980s. However,
between 2000 and 2010, prison growth cooled down substantially, as
state prison populations rose an average of 1.1 percent each year,
and federal prisons 3.3 percent on average, compared to a rise of 5.6
percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, in the 1990s.
more closely at the dynamics behind the numbers, the Sentencing
Project report noted that as prison population stabilized and
decreased in some states, these changing dynamics were reflected in
racial and gender disparities in incarceration from 2000 to 2009.
Overall, the incarceration rate in state and federal prison dropped
9.8 percent for Black men and 30.7 percent for Black women. By
contrast, the incarceration rate increased 8.5 percent for white men
and 47.1 percent for white women, declined 2.2 percent for Latino men
and rose 23.3 percent for Latino women.
women, the shift in the racial gap was dramatic. The number of white
women in prison increased 48.4 percent, the number of Black women
fell 24.6 percent, and the number of Latino women increased 75
percent during that time frame. Black women were imprisoned at a rate
six times higher than white women in 2000. By the end of the decade,
that disparity had narrowed by more than half to a ratio of 2.8 to 1.
the substantial changes, the disparities by race and ethnicity
remained, as “African Americans and Latinos constituted more
than 60% of imprisoned offenders. African American males were
incarcerated in state and federal prisons at 6.4 times the rate of
non-Hispanic white males, and Hispanic males at 2.4 times the rate of
non-Hispanic whites,” according to the Sentencing Project.
data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that Black male
incarceration fell 22 percent between 2000 and 2014, while the white
rate increased 4 percent, closing the racial gap by a quarter. During
that time period, imprisonment among Black women decreased 47
percent, and the rate among white women soared 56 percent, narrowing
the racial disparity between Black and white women by two-thirds.
very intriguing,” Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the
Sentencing Project told Atlanta Black Star of the shifting
incarceration rates by race. “The first part of it is there are
two different stories. I don’t think it’s law enforcement
saying, ‘We’re arresting too many Black people.’
whites and Latinos, to some extent, the common assumption is
opioid-related. I think that’s a good chunk of it. I don’t
think that explains the whole thing,” Mauer added. “The
trends started around 2000 before the opioid epidemic, so it was
starting in that direction. It may be more related to the underlying
changes in white working-class communities — declining economic
opportunity, physical disabilities, job-related and others. Some of
that winds up in opioid addiction, risk factors for bad health and
crime. I think it’s declining opportunity that leads to entry
into the criminal justice system,” he added.
the incarceration numbers for African-Americans, Mauer surmises the
shifting impact of crack cocaine arrests are at play, along with
declining crime rates over the past 20 years. Mauer also pointed to
increasing evidence that community-based initiatives played a role for
Black communities, while more whites were introduced to widespread
poverty through the aftermath of the Great Recession. Black people
always knew tough times, and more white people are experiencing it,
along with deteriorating life prospects, and as Brookings study
found, increased mortality rates, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicides
from 1998 to 2013, precisely when these shifting incarceration rates
were taking place.
part I find interesting is we had the fiscal crisis of 2008 and 2009
and they usually hit communities of color more, but this wasn’t
the case. How would we understand why that didn’t take place?
My guess is in many respects poverty and disadvantage is not a news
item in African-American communities. It has been going on for
decades. But for whites who were dependent on coal mine jobs and auto
plants, those jobs are gone,” Mauer said. “In Black
communities there is more of a tradition of a social safety net, of
support with churches, neighborhoods helping each other, social
service agencies,” he added, noting that in some of the white
communities, some of those networking dynamics may not have been as
strong, hence their downward trajectory.
Z. Bennett, fourth-year Ph.D. student in criminal justice at Temple
University, elaborated on the role of community-based organizations
in the decline of African-American incarceration. The young criminal
justice scholar pointed to the work of people such as NYU sociologist
Patrick Sharkey, who cites the unsung presence of community groups as
a missing piece in a puzzle where a combination of factors is at
play. Sharkey estimated in his research that for every 10 additional
community-based organizations in a city of 100,000 people, the murder
rate dropped 9 percent, and violent crime fell 6 percent.
criminologists, we’re not really sure what causes these drops,”
Bennett told Atlanta Black Star. “With Sharkey’s
research, it’s a combination of things.”
didn’t even see themselves doing criminal just reform work,”
Bennett explained, noting that these are just “ordinary
citizens,” as opposed to experts that society often turns to
for answers. “It makes sense from a practical point that if you
live in the community, you know how to solve the problem.”
Bennett cited the organization CeaseFire, in which those who have
“perpetrated violence in their own community become violence
also noted that in the 1970s, with the influx of Black men into the
prison system, sociologist Robert Martinson released studies claiming
nothing works, including rehabilitation and treatment, bolstering
advocates of a tough-on-drugs stance with more punishment. “Now,
people have adopted evidence-based programs, and that adds to what
community-based organizations do,” Bennett said. “People
are starting to understand that violence is a public health problem.
Issues such as crime are a public health problem.” However, the
racial injustices and disparities remain, and the Temple scholar
believes conditions will not change in America without a paradigm
shift in policies, and a healthy conversation about race.
numbers are still horrendous by any reasonable measure. We can’t
overlook any of that,” Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project
concluded. “Nonetheless, the fact that the African-American
numbers are going down both in absolute terms and Black-white
disparities offers hope these problems are not intractable. How
racial disparities develop in the justice system are subject to
policy and practice decisions in the justice system,” he added.
Mauer used the example of New York state, which has been a leader in
decarceration and has experienced a 25 percent reduction in its
prison population, almost entirely due to a reduction in drug
sentences, with Blacks and Latinos benefiting the most. “It’s
like the converse of what the drug war looked like. Blacks and
Latinos were 90 percent of the people incarcerated, now 90 percent of
people who benefited. Whether it was motivated by concerns of racial
justice, that is certainly the effect. We can make changes if we are
focused on it, and there is no adverse effect on public safety.”
This commentary was originally published by AtlantaBlackStar.com