The long-standing racial disparity in rates of incarceration has begun to narrow in the early part of the 21st century, but a wide-ranging new study shows a stubbornly persistent inequality in the racial composition of the nation’s state prison systems.
The numbers, released Tuesday by the Council on Criminal Justice, show that skin color still plays a major role in determining who goes to prison, and how long they stay there.
The study, which examined the period from 2000 to 2016 — the latest year with available data — found that the black-white imprisonment rate across state prisons fell from 8.3-to-1 to 5.1-to-1 during that interval. In other words, despite significant progress, black people are still five times more likely to be sent to prison than white people.
And it gets worse: Black defendants are getting longer sentences in state prisons even as the number of arrests or incarcerations among black people steadily goes down.
“The disparity continues,” Marissa Dodson, a public policy director with the Southern Center for Human Rights, told the Daily News. “We have not really addressed the way the system treats people depending on what color they are.”
The study offers a glimpse into the positive effects of prison reform and changes to drug enforcement policies nationwide, but it’s clear the racial gap could have decreased even more if black people weren’t serving longer sentences.
Civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson called the report “incredible,” but noted the racial divide persists, starting with police interactions all the way to harsher sentences.
“The devil is in the details,” the Black Lives Matter lead organizer told The News.
The civil rights activist called the report “incredible,” but he noted the racial divide persists, starting with police interactions all the way to harsher sentences, and is slowing down the progress highlighted by the report.
The findings are part of the first major report by the newly formed council, a nonpartisan coalition of experts, advocates and leaders seeking to build consensus for solutions to enhance criminal justice policies. Its board of trustees includes former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, Utah Sen. Mike Lee and former California Gov. Jerry Brown.
The arrest rate for violent crime among black people fell by 2% per year from 2000 to 2016 while the length of imprisonment increased by about 1.5% per year in the same period, resulting in an annual net drop of 0.8% in the black violent crime imprisonment rate, the report shows.
Experts say racial disparities are reflected in each step of the justice system, starting with an encounter with a police officer, a prosecutors’ decision on what charges to bring and what sentences to recommend, a judge’s discretion with sentencing lengths and parole boards considering who can be released. They hope the data will help shape more direct policies to root out racism from the criminal justice system, from police interactions all the way to parole hearings.
Most of the trends are driven by state prisons because that’s where most of the country’s inmate population is housed — 1.3 million out of 1.5 million — though the council noted that the racial gap is also declining in federal prisons.
One of the report’s most encouraging trends is the declining state imprisonment rates for drug offenders. In 2000, black people were imprisoned for drug crimes at 15 times the rate of whites, but the ratio was just under 5-to-1 by 2016. In other positive news, both the black and white imprisonment rates for property crime went down in that 16-year period. The decline for blacks was more than 10 times that for whites, according to the report.
Dodson, who’s on the council’s board of directors, said the drop in racial disparities should be viewed as an unintended but positive consequence of recent reforms in the criminal justice system as opposed to specific policies targeting race-based bias.
“It wasn’t that policymakers were saying, ‘Oh my god, let’s look at what we’re doing. How come our system is over-incarcerating black people?’” she said.
The drug-related reforms have had a major impact because people in power are finally more sensitive to the issue, partly because of the opioid epidemic, which largely affects white communities, Dodson said.
“We’re excited to see that we’re doing this differently,” she said, “but this crisis is the same crisis that was devastating communities of color in the 80s and 90s … and the response was not, ‘How can we help people?’ It was, ‘How can we get them out of our community?’”
The disproportionate representation of minorities in the justice system has long been blamed on systemic racism as well as the effects of harsher sentencing policies adopted in the 1980s and 90s.
The disparity in sentencing lengths often makes headlines, especially when it involves high-profile defendants. In 2016, for instance, Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who’s white, was sentenced to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus.
The athlete ended up serving half of that sentence, drawing widespread outrage and causing the California judge to be removed from the bench.
That same year, another standout college athlete was convicted for a similar charge — raping an unconscious woman — but the outcome was quite different. Former college football player Cory Batey, who’s black, is serving a 15-year prison sentence for taking part in the 2013 gang rape of a Vanderbilt University student.
Former police officer Thaddeus Johnson, one of the authors of the report, told The News he sees the report as the start of an informed conversation, but he agrees there’s not much to cheer for.
“It’s difficult to celebrate something that shouldn’t exist in the first place,” he said.
Mckesson, who’s on the council’s board of trustees, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the findings, but he’s pleased to see that the conversation about drug users has shifted. Not long ago, he said, one could start a discussion about marijuana legalization and “people would look at you like you were trying to single-handedly take down America.”
The council encouraged state and local leaders to replicate the study so they can better tackle the racial divide in their jurisdictions.
Dodson said, “Racial disparities in the American criminal system are significant and problematic. It is beyond time for us to be thinking about targeted policies that address that.”