Analysis: Black Imprisonment Rates Are Going Down and No One Knows Just Why

Mass Incarceration

The Marshall Project reported on Friday that from 2000-2015 the rate of incarceration for black men fell by 24 percent while the rate for black women fell by 50 percent.  However, during the same period the rate for white women soared by 53 percent and, for white men, less dramatically.

So while the incarceration gap remains fairly wide with blacks imprisoned at a rate of five times that of whites and one in 10 black children with a parent behind bars (compared with one in 60 for whites), over the last 15 years the gap has been narrowing.

As reported by the Sentencing Project, “the racial disparity between black and white women’s incarceration was once 6 to 1. Now it’s 2 to 1.”

The Marshall Project further notes that the same pattern holds for local jails with the caveat that the data is less reliable.  Data show: “Since 2000, the total number of black people in local detention has decreased from 256,300 to 243,400, according to BJS [Bureau of Justice]; meanwhile, the number of whites rose from 260,500 to 335,100.”

Meanwhile additional data “from the Vera Institute of Justice also reveal significant drops in the jailing of blacks from New York to Los Angeles, coinciding with little change for whites.”

The question here is why.  And while Fordham University law professor John Pfaff calls this “definitely optimistic news,” he cautions “but the racial disparity remains so vast that it’s pretty hard to celebrate. How exactly do you talk about ‘less horrific?’”

According to Professor Pfaff, “Our inability to explain it suggests how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general.”

The Marshall Project offers four theories to explain the findings.

First, overall, crime, arrests and incarceration are declining.  Therefore it is natural that the decreases would benefit the group that is most incarcerated, African Americans.  “Crime rates have been on the decline since just after 1990, as have arrests. Given that both measures disproportionately affect the black community, one theory goes, the overall drop should shrink the racial gap in incarceration, too.”

A second theory has to do with the shift in the war on drugs from crack cocaine, which was dominated by African Americans, to methamphetamine and opioids which are more dominated by whites.

This follows the Michelle Alexander theory from The New Jim Crow that “the so-called war on drugs has been waged more aggressively against people of color. The arrest numbers bear this out: The black vs. white disparity for drug crimes remains extreme.”

But the gap has narrowed since the mid-1990s, around the time of the passage of the 1994 crime bill.

They write that “in 2000, something else happened: White people started getting locked up for drugs more often. From 2000 to 2009, the black imprisonment rate for drug offenses fell by 16 percent. For white people, it climbed by nearly 27 percent, according to BJS.”

One hypothesis is that “it may have to do with the waning of one epidemic — crack, which devastated black communities in the 1980s and 1990s — and the emergence of another — meth and opioids, both used in greater numbers by whites more recently. Such a theory may also explain why the narrowing of the racial gap has been more dramatic among women, who are disproportionately incarcerated for drug crimes, according to the Sentencing Project.”

The third explanation may be more worrisome, and that is that white people are facing declining socioeconomic prospects, leading to more criminal justice involvement.

They write: “Starting around 2000, whites started going to prison more often for property offenses: robbery, burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft, forgery, counterfeiting and selling or buying stolen property, often categorized as crimes of poverty. From 2000 to 2009, black incarceration for those crimes dropped nine percent, the BJS numbers show. It went up by 21 percent for whites.

“Explanations for this shift are also speculative,” they warn. “But some analyses suggest that an overall decline in life prospects for white people over the past few decades has also led [to] an increase in lawbreaking among that population, especially crimes of poverty.”

One much discussed study by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that between 1998 and 2013 — “precisely when these racial shifts in incarceration were occurring — white Americans saw their rates of mortality, suicide and alcohol and drug abuse spike acutely.

“Yet that cannot be the whole explanation for the rise in white incarceration rates,” they caution. “African Americans have long been worse off on most of those socioeconomic metrics: jobs lost to automation and globalization, homes lost to the 2008 mortgage crisis, declining unionization and wages, loans denied.”

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, speculates that perhaps “whites are just newer to the experience of poverty, which could explain why their rates of drug use, property crime and incarceration have ticked up so suddenly.”

Finally, criminal justice reform has been occurring in the cities where mostly black people live rather than in the rural areas where more whites live.

They write, “Starting in 2000, the rate of prison population growth in the United States finally began to slow, thanks not only to declining crime but also to efforts at reform. These have included treatment alternatives for drug offenders, sentence reductions for inmates who participate in educational programming, reentry services for former inmates and reduced sanctions for technical violations of parole.”

But here again is a tale of two Americas: urban and rural.

From 2006 to 2014, according to a recent analysis by the New York Times, “annual prison admissions plummeted in major cities such as Los Angeles and Brooklyn, due largely to criminal justice reform. But in counties with fewer than 100,000 people, the incarceration numbers have actually risen even as crime declined.”

Therefore, recent analysis has found: “People in rural districts are now 50 percent more likely to be sent to prison than are city dwellers, as local prosecutors and judges there have largely avoided the current wave of reform.”

My take is that all four of these factors may be at work.  It seems only logical that reducing overall crime and incarceration is likely to impact the group most affected by crime rates and incarceration rates to begin with.

The war on drugs may not have a huge impact, but there were studies that showed in New York, for instance, the vast majority of people arrested for drug crimes were black – even though 70 percent of drug users were white.  The change from crack to meth and opioids is bound to have an impact here.

The third explanation is worrisome and it rings true – the diminished prospects for white America, the Trump phenomenon if you will, may have an impact as well, but it doesn’t explain the drop in crime among blacks.

Finally, the urban-rural divide is intriguing, but the problem is that there appears to be not just a decrease in incarceration rates in urban areas, but a real decrease in crime rates underlying it.

So I would tend to look at theories two and three as important factors.  However, the report warns that “the racial inequity of the American prison system remains vast and continues to wreak devastation on black and Latino communities nationwide. At the current rate, the disparities would not fully disappear for many decades.”

Moreover, there is also this: “[R]acial divides in the juvenile justice system are getting significantly worse. In 2003, black youth were incarcerated at 3.7 times the rate of white youth; by 2013, that number had grown to 4.3.”

If that is the case, this shift is likely to be short-lived because we know that juvenile crime puts people into the system earlier and will have a trickle-down effect.

Finally, Michelle Alexander wrote to The Marshall Project in 2015: “Until we learn the true value of the lives we have wasted, and until we truly reckon with our nation’s history… and until we muster, as a nation, a willingness to invest heavily in the communities that have suffered the most, we will find ourselves in an endless cycle of reform and retrenchment — periods of apparent progress followed by the creation of new systems of racial and social control.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Jeff M

    “According to Professor Pfaff, “Our inability to explain it suggests how poorly we understand the mechanics behind incarceration in general.”

    That has not stopped the social justice crusade from politicizing the issue and blaming law enforcement and judicial bias.  But of course now, when the trends don’t support the narrative, we suddenly get interested to dig deeper for explanations.

    1. David Greenwald

      I don’t you’re right here.  what I see happening is you have a long stand gap in incarceration that over a lengthy period of time started to reverse, the question is why that has happened.  It’s not the narrative was wrong, it is that the trend has shifted.

      It seems like a reasonable question to ask why and acknowledge you don’t fully know.

      Even with that, the overall picture remains not much different.

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