Criminal justice observers are making note of a trend in incarceration 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.
The Sentencing Project 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.
Looking 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.
For 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.
Despite 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.
Similarly, 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.
“It’s 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.’
“Among 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.
Assessing 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.
“One 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.
Juwan 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.
“As 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.”
“Nonprofits 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 interrupters.”
Bennett 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.
“The 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.”