People of color still are significantly more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than white people, but new research from the nonpartisan think tank, the Council on Criminal Justice reflects a decline in the size of these disparities between 2000 and 2016.
Racial gaps in jails, prisons and people on probation and parole declined from 2000 to 2016, the most recent year data is available for. The Black-white disparity fell from 8.3-to-1 in 2000 to 5.1-to-1 in 2016, and the Hispanic-white disparity fell from 3.6-to-1 in 2000 to 1.4-to-1 in 2016. For women, the Black-white imprisonment disparity fell from 6-to-1 to 2-to-1.
Across the board for all major crimes, the disparities in imprisonment shrunk but were most dramatic in drug crimes. According to the study, Black people were 15 times more likely than whites to be in state prisons for drug crimes in 2000. In 2016, that number shrunk to five.
The only charges in which Black men did not see a decrease in charges were public order offenses. In contrast, the number of white men held for violent offenses increased by 14% and those held for public order offenses increased by 42%. The adult white male prison rate increased in all crime categories except burglary and auto theft. In every offense category, white women’s imprisonment rates increased. Black women’s imprisonment rates decreased for drug offenses but increased in violent and public order offenses.
Over the 16-year span, the gaps began to close as the numbers of black men and women in prisons decreased while the numbers of white men and women in prisons increased. The racial disparities among women in correctional facilities declined more quickly than the disparities among men.
Offending rates of Blacks for the violent crimes of murder, rape, robbery and assault declined steadily by 3% each year, which the researchers said could partially contribute to the decline in imprisonment rates for Blacks. However, the decrease is offset by prison sentences for these charges for both Blacks and whites becoming longer over the 16-year span.
Hispanic-white disparities for those in jails, prisons, probation and parole also declined, and by 2016, there was no disparity for those on parole.
These findings go against the assumption that racial disparities in imprisonment have been getting worse, but the numbers still do not necessarily warrant a celebration.
According to a study by Rutgers University-Newark researchers, police brutality is a leading cause of death among — mostly Black — men. The overall risk of being killed in the hands of police is 1-to-2,000 for white men, and 1-to-1,000 for Black men. And though correctional program disparities for drug convictions are decreasing nationwide, drug arrests still overwhelmingly affect people of color, especially in New York City, where the NYPD’s last quarter report showed 90% of drug arrests were of Black and Hispanic men.
Council on Criminal Justice researchers conclude the study by pointing to room for further, deeper research into these patterns.
“Additional data and research are essential to understand why precisely these trends are occurring, nationally and within state and local jurisdictions,” the report says.