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Stat house
July 2007


Study documents possible racial bias in U.S. incarceration
A new analysis by The Sentencing Project documents a continuing trend of high incarceration rates for U.S. African Americans compared to white Americans, but also notes a newly accelerating rate of incarceration among Hispanic Americans compared to white Americans. The report, Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity , finds that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the rate of whites and Hispanics at nearly double (1.8) the rate of whites. The study provides a regional examination of the racial and ethnic dynamics of incarceration in the U.S. and finds broad variations in racial disparity among the 50 states.

The report also reveals wide variation in incarceration by state, with states in the Northeast and Midwest exhibiting the greatest black-to-white disparity in incarceration. In five states - Iowa, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Wisconsin - African Americans are incarcerated at more than ten times the rate of whites.

"Racial disparities in incarceration reflect a failure of social and economic interventions to address crime effectively and also indicate racial bias in the justice system," stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. "The broad variation in the use of incarceration nationally suggests that policy decisions can play a key role in determining the size and composition of the prison population."

According to the report: "While the disproportionate rate of incarceration for African Americans has been well documented for some time, a significant development in the past decade has been the growing proportion of the Hispanic population entering prisons and jails. In 2005, Hispanics comprised 20 percent of the state and federal prison population, a rise of 43 percent since 1990. As a result of these trends, one of every six Hispanic males and one of every 45 Hispanic females born today can expect to go to prison in his or her lifetime. These rates are more than double those for non-Hispanic whites."

The report extends the findings of previous analyses by incorporating jail populations in the overall incarceration rate and by assessing the impact of incarceration on the Hispanic community, representing an increasing share of the prison population. The state figures for Hispanic incarceration also reveal broad variation nationally. Three states - Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania - have a Hispanic-to-white ratio of incarceration more than three times the national average.

Prior research from the Department of Justice has demonstrated that if current trends continue, one in three black males and one in six Hispanic males born today can expect to go to prison. Rates for women are lower overall, but exhibit similar racial and ethnic disparities.

To address the broad disparities in the criminal justice system, The Sentencing Project urges policymakers to implement a variety of measures. These include:

According to the report, an unprecedented increase in prison and jail populations since the 1970s has meant a more than 500 percent rise in the number of people incarcerated, more than 2.2 million people are behind bars in America.

"This growth has been accompanied by an increasingly disproportionate racial composition, with particularly high rates of incarceration for African Americans, who now constitute 900,000 of the total 2.2 million incarcerated population. The exponential increase in the use of incarceration has had modest success at best in producing public safety, while contributing to family disruption and the weakening of informal social controls in many African American communities. Overall, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics document that one in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. . . . While these national figures are disturbing, they mask the extreme state-level variations in the impact of incarceration on communities of color."

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