STUDY: Racist Policies Lead to Major Racial Disparities in Prisons Nationwide


By Angelina Sang and Sonam Hundal

WASHINGTON D.C. – The Sentencing Project has released a staggering new report detailing the racial disparity found in America’s incarceral system, providing both explanations and proposing possible solutions to alleviate persistent disparities.

“America’s legacy of white supremacy over Black people has taken many forms over the country’s history from chattel slavery to housing policies that made it impossible for African Americans to buy homes. Mass incarceration can be viewed as the current iteration,” the report states.

America is seen as “the world leader in its use of incarceration” – something that did not happen by chance, but rather has been structured as such by its white policy-makers that “[insist] on suppression of others,” The Sentencing Project adds.

The report’s findings support this view, noting that cross the country, “one in 81 Black adults per 100,000 in the U.S. is serving time in state prison.” Black Americans’ incarceration rate is five times and Latinx Americans’ 1.3 times that of white Americans.

Biased practices and policies tainted by systemic racism including pre-trial detention, weighing criminal history when sentencing, stop-and-frisks, and poor police relations are key reasons why racial disparities in incarceration exist, the study says.

Because of wealth inequalities, pre-trial detention is more likely to be ordered to Black American defendants, the report notes, adding “Those who are detained pretrial are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to longer prison terms,” thus creating racial disparities in prison sentences.

The American judicial system places a heavy emphasis on the presence of prior criminal history when sentencing; the longer the criminal history, the longer the sentence, The Sentencing Project argues, pointing out this disproportionately affects Black Americans: “If previous encounters with the system are the result of racially biased engagement with the system, subsequent sentences that rely on these prior records as a measure of dangerousness worsen those disparities.:

The report cites that such racially biased engagement with the system is elucidated by findings. Notably, the report notes a 2020 study in Nature Human Behaviour that found “Black drivers were stopped more frequently than white drivers and […] Black and Latinx drivers were more likely to be ticketed, searched, and arrested.”

Additionally, a 2015 Brookings Institution study found that although Black Americans and White Americans use and sell drugs at similar rates, Black Americans are “nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession.”

Wisconsin’s incarceration rates of its Black residents are higher than any other state, despite the fact that only six percent of their overall population is Black. However, adds the study, “the absence or unreliability of ethnicity data in some states produces ethnic disparities…that may be understated.”

Note that in many states, Latinx people are counted as white people, causing the incarceration rate of whites to appear higher than it actually is, therefore leading to the appearance of lower racial disparities.

“Chronic racial and ethnic disparity in imprisonment has been a known feature of the prison system for many decades” yet there have been little efforts made to directly address such patterns, The Sentencing Project maintains, adding that biases on behalf of those who work in the criminal justice field contribute to these disparities.

Criminologists have tried to find reasons for racial disparities in prisons, however “nearly half of the racial disparity […] among those convicted of drug crimes could not be explained by arrest,” according to the TSP study.

Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist, conducted a research study and found that “if there was no discrimination at the point of arrest and points afterward, the racial makeup of people in prison should approximate the population of people who are arrested.”

He said that arrests are the point in the criminal justice system where there is “less discretion” and thus is “a more accurate reflection of some criminal activity.” Generally speaking, research studies that focus on racial disparities in prisons find that said disparities simply “cannot be explained by patterns in criminal offending.”

The Sentencing Project concluded the report by providing a series of recommendations it believed would curtail this issue, recommending reducing prison sentences for low-level drug offences, abolishing mandatory minimums, and further pursuing racial impact legislation.

Some states have already begun to implement these recommendations.

Because New Jersey has the highest Black/white disparity of all the states, policymakers recently decided to explore “a range of reforms that could ameliorate persistent disparities and accelerate progress if implemented to their fullest.”
And over the last two decades, the state was able to lower its prison population by nearly 40 percent, which was achieved by “a 39 percent reduction in African American prisoners, a 45 percent reduction in Latinx prisoners, and a 30 percent reduction in white prisoners.”


About The Author

Angelina is a junior at UCSB from San Carlos, California studying Psychological and Brain Sciences and History pursuing a pre-law track.

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