Incarceration Disparities among American Ethnic Groups
Since the 1970’s, the jail and prison population in the United States has been increasing at an unprecedented rate. The total number of incarcerated individuals has risen by a whopping 500%. This massive increase has resulted to a total of 2.2 million people in the nation’s jails and prisons (Mauer & King, 2007). This stupendous growth in the number of incarcerated individuals has been accompanied by an increasingly unbalanced racial composition. There have particularly been high incarceration rates for blacks with this section of the population making up more than 10% of the total number of incarcerated individuals. This roughly adds up to about 900, 000 African Americans behind bars. Perhaps one interesting thing to note is that the observed increase in the usage of incarceration as a behavior adjustment technique has had modest success in terms of ensuring public safety (Mauer & King, 2007). In the African American community where the rate of incarceration has been higher than that of other races, incarceration has led to family disruption as well as the weakening of many informal social controls (Mauer & King, 2007).
Statistics obtained from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics show that one in every six black men has been imprisoned at one point in their lives (Rushing, 2011). If these trends continue into the future, it is estimated that one in three black males born currently can expect to be imprisoned at one time in their lifetime. It is, however, important to note that the prevalence for female imprisonment is significantly lower than that for males. However, the racial disparities observed for males also apply to the females with statistics showing that black or African American women are more likely to be jailed or imprisoned than their white counterparts.
The fact that such high imprison rates exist for the black minority community signals a huge crisis (Mauer & King, 2007). However, the two hardest things are figuring out what leads to these patterns and how they can be changed. A consensus has often been made that the patterns of incarceration observed for the black minority community are a combination of several factors. These include both societal factors that result in the commitment of more crimes by black males as well as political factors that result in harsher enforcement and punishment for black offenders that for the white offenders. Some of the societal factors that have been attributed to prompting increased rates of crime commitment among the black community include segregation, poverty, and racial discrimination (Jackson, 2006). Such factors lead to poor education and job opportunities, which then in turn foster conditions that encourage theft, violence as well as other illegitimate ways of making a living. Differential policing policies also lead to disparity. Policies such as “driving while black” or ‘quality of life” have been cited as major sources of arrest as well as imprisonment differentials, especially when it comes to drug related offences (Jackson, 2006). The rates of drug usage are fairly similar between blacks and whites while Hispanics use drugs relatively less than the whites. However, Hispanics and blacks are more likely to be incarcerated on drug related offenses than whites (Jackson, 2006).
Racial disparities are not just exhibited in the total number of incarcerated individuals. The disparities manifest themselves across a variety of criminal justice elements. These include prosecution incidents, convictions, prison sentences and period served. Rates of occurrence or the magnitude of all the above factors have been found to be higher among minority communities such as the black and the Hispanics. Racial inequality has also been observed when it comes to lawyers, lawmakers and judges. Once again, minority communities including the blacks and the whites have once again been found to be lowly represented as compared to their white counterparts (Jackson, 2006).
The first category is the number of arrests across the three primary races. The whites comprise the largest part of the total population and, therefore, as expected, they make the largest part of the total arrests made annually. However, relative to their proportion of the general population, the two minority communities, that is the blacks and the Hispanics are more represented (Hartney & Vuong, 2009). It is shown that the rates of criminal arrests for blacks is 2.5 higher than that for whites. These rates are, in fact, higher for certain categories of offences. For instance, the rates of arrests for blacks in crimes related to violence and drugs was a whopping 3.5 % higher than that for whites for similar offenses. In addition, African Americans were arrested at higher rate (six times) for offenses such as robbery gambling and murder than the whites (Hartney & Vuong, 2009) were. The only offense where they showed a reduced rate of arrest was in alcohol related offenses. When it came to the Hispanicss, their rates of arrest were also higher than those for whites (1.5 times higher) although significantly lower than those for blacks. Greater disparity for the Hispanics was observed for certain public order and violent offenses (Hartney & Vuong, 2009).
The next segment of the criminal justice field where huge racial disparities are once again observed is when it comes to criminal prosecution and convictions. When it comes to prosecution, the rates for blacks and Hispanics are once again higher than their white counterparts (Hartney & Vuong, 2009). There is a higher likelihood for arrested persons of black or Hispanic background to be taken to court for prosecution especially on crimes related to violence, robbery and drug offenses (Hartney & Vuong, 2009). However, an even greater disparity is observed in the rates of convictions and well as the magnitude of sentencing and time spent in prison.
Nearly 1.5 million people are convicted of various felonies in state courts annually. Perhaps it would be wise to look at the conviction disparities in terms of the crime committed. When it comes to violence, the proportion of black’s conviction is almost similar to that of white convictions (17% and 18% respectively). The rate for Hispanics is 8 %. The rates for conviction in property crimes is 31% for the whites and 26% for African Americans (12). Blacks and Hispanics comprise about 41% of all convictions related to drug offenses (Hartney & Vuong, 2009).
Disparities are also in the number and length of sentences. Once again, it is shown that blacks and Hispanics are once again at the negative end of the criminal justice system (Davis, 1998). African Americans particularly were sentenced to prison more than their white and Hispanic counterparts. In all criminal convictions, 71% of blacks were incarcerated as compared to 66% of whites (Hartney & Vuong, 2009). Differential statistics are once again observed according to different crimes, but the overall implication is that for all types of offences, except those related to weapons, African Americans and Hispanics were less often sent to probation, which is a more lenient disposition, than the whites. In terms of time served in prison, disparity is also observed in that blacks and Hispanics have a combined sentence length that is one year longer than the one for whites (Hartney & Vuong, 2009).
In general, African Americans are usually convicted at rate 4.3 times higher than the whites. From these convictions, they are incarcerated at 4.4 times the rate for White’s incarceration. Hispanics are not spared either as their rate of conviction is 2.1 times that of whites while their rates of incarceration are 2.4 times that of whites (Hartney & Vuong, 2009).
As observed, huge disparities lie in almost all elements of the criminal justice process ranging from arrests, prosecutions, convictions, sentencing and so on. One persistent question has, however, been in regards to the variable or factors that are associated with the people or individuals who get involved in crime (Davis, 1998). As mentioned earlier, most of these factors are social and political nature. The high prevalence of crime among the black community can particularly be attributed to a couple of social factors.
It is no secret that the black community in America has historically been discriminated across a variety of factors such as education and job opportunities. Before the civil rights movement, huge disparities in the education sector existed and many blacks did not have the opportunity to access high quality educated that was accessible to their white counterparts (Davis, 1998). This disparity in terms of high quality education access is still present although to a significantly reduced magnitude. The lack of access to higher quality education limits job opportunities for the black community as well as their Hispanic counterparts. This leads to the emergence of things such as unemployment, which inadvertently prompts criminal tendencies among the black community as they try to earn a living. In addition, the black community comprises the highest portion of the poor in the nation. Poverty is another factor that also elicits criminal tendencies in an individual and this can once again be attributed to the observed higher rates of crime among African Americans. Once individuals have committed crimes and have been arrested, the criminal justice system once again seems not be in favor of African Americans. The statistics mentioned previously are a testament to this. One of the reasons why the explained trend is observed could be because of a natural stereotype that has been existent since time immemorial and this is that any black individual is highly likely to be a crime offender. In addition, many law enforcement officers who are non- African American or non-Hispanic have a prejudiced disposition about minority communities' involvement in crime. One particular instance has been the stopping of motor vehicles being driven by black person without any probable cause (Rushing, 2011). This has popularly been dubbed as “driving while black”, an indirect reference to another legal offense named “driving while drunk”. Consequently, proper investigative process, as well as court deliberations, is not performed exhaustively and this then leads to increased rates of convictions and incarcerations.
When it comes to the criminal justice stakeholders, there has also been an observed racial imbalance. Statistics show that whites make up the majority of the nation’s lawyers, judges as well as lawmakers (Jackson, 2006). This is fairly understandable given that whites make up a larger number of the total population. The primary concern has, however, been that despite whites being the largest population, their representation in the criminal justice field is higher than it ought to be and other communities such as blacks ought to be given more positions and representations. The overwhelming representation of whites in the criminal justice field in terms of lawyers, judges, and lawmakers has been, in fact, been credited with the persistence of the racial stereotyping dogma in this field (Jackson, 2006). America is becoming more diverse every day, but it appears that its legal stakeholders are not. For instance, state judges across all states are pre-dominantly whites. In fact, statistics shows that while males make up twice the number of legal stakeholders including judges and lawmakers of their minority community. Another interesting statistic is that the number of African American judges seems to be on the decrease (Jackson, 2006). Concisely, this is a depiction of structured inequality in the United States of America. Inequality can partly be blamed for the observed higher amounts of minority group’s incarceration in the nation’s prisons as compared to the majority groups. The United States boasts of having the fairest and most democratic criminal justice field in the entire globe, but as observed, this democracy is somehow deficient. If the nation is to achieve a full democratize criminal justice field, the stakeholders in this field ought to be derived from all races and ethnicities that make up the nation’s society (Jackson, 2006).
In conclusion, it has been observed that the rate of incarceration of African Americans is relatively higher than that of any other ethnic group. This observed rate has been attributed to both social and political factors that not only influence the rate of commitment of crimes among the African American community, but also the way the offenders are treated in the criminal justice field. It has emerged that the rates of incarceration are not simply attributable to social such as poverty and unemployment that prompt black people to commit a crime. They are also attributable to unfair criminal justice field that almost seems to victim’s members from minority groups, in this case African Americans (Mauer & King, 2007). Consequently, in order to curb the nation’s high rates of incarceration, it is not only the social factors that should be addressed, but the criminal justice field should also be overhauled to eliminate structural inequality.
Davis, A. J. (1998). Prosecution and Race: The Power and Privilege of Discretion. Fordham Law Review, 67(1), 13-68.
Hartney, C., & Vuong, L. (2009). Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System. National Council on Crime and Deliquency, 1-38.
Mauer, M., & King, R. S. (2007). Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity. The Sentencing Project.
Wakefield, Sara, and Christopher Wildeman. "Mass imprisonment and racial disparities in childhood behavioral problems." Criminology & Public Policy10.3 (2011): 791-792. Print.
Jackson, Mary S.. Policing in a diverse society: another American dilemma. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2006. Print.
Drake, B. (2013, September 6). Incarceration gap widens between whites and blacks | Pew Research Center. Retrieved May 20, 2013, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/09/06/incarceration-gap-between-whites-and-blacks-widens/
Rushing, K. (2011, March 23). Keith Rushing: The Reasons Why So Many Black People Are in Prison Go Well Beyond Profiling. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-rushing/the-reasons-why-so-many-b_b_883310.html