The disproportionate representation of black Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system is well documented.17 Blacks comprise 13 percent of the national population, but 30 percent of people arrested, 41 percent of people in jail,18 and 49 percent of those in prison.19 Nine percent of all black adults are under some form of correctional supervision (in jail or prison, on probation or parole), compared to two percent of white adults. 20 One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation in 1995.21 One in ten black men in their twenties and early thirties is in prison or jail. 22 Thirteen percent of the black adult male population has lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws.23
Admissions to Prison
Racial disparities in incarceration increased in the 1980s and 1990s as the number of blacks sent to prison grew at a faster rate than the number of whites. 24 Between 1979 and 1990, the number of blacks as a percentage of all persons admitted to state and federal prisons increased from 39 to 53 percent.25 Although the admissions for both races, in absolute numbers, rose sharply, the increase was greatest for blacks (Figure 1).
Human Rights Watch has been able to analyze state prison admissions based on raw data on 37 states gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice through its National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) for 1996, the most recent year for which this data is available. In 17 of these states, blacks constituted more than half of all prison admissions (Table 2). Maryland had the highest percentage of black admissions, 79 percent, followed by Illinois with 74 percent, Louisiana with 73 percent, and New Jersey with 72 percent.
Overrepresentation of Blacks in Prison
In every state, the proportion of blacks in prison exceeds, sometimes by a considerable amount, their proportion in the general population (Figure 2). In Minnesota and Iowa, blacks constitute a share of the prison population that is twelve times greater than their share of the state population. In eleven states -- Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming --the percentage of the prison population that is black is more than six times greater than the percentage of the state population that is black.
Rates of Incarceration
Racially disaggregated incarceration rates that measure the number of confined blacks and whites per 100,000 residents of each racial group yield another perspective on the extent of racial disparities in imprisonment. Nationwide, blacks are incarcerated at 8.2 times the rate of whites. That is, a black person is 8.2 times more likely to be in prison than a white person. Among individual states, there are even more extraordinary racial disparities in incarceration rates (Figure 3). In seven states -- Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,
and Wisconsin -- blacks are incarcerated at more than 13 times the rate of whites. Minnesota has by far the highest disparity -- blacks in that state are incarcerated at 23 times the rate of whites. In the District of Columbia, blacks are incarcerated at 34 times the rate of whites. Even in Hawaii and Vermont, the states with the smallest racial disparities in incarceration rates, blacks are still incarcerated at more than twice the rate of whites.26
Blacks are incarcerated nationally at a rate of 1,547 per 100,000 black residents. In some states, the black rate of incarceration reaches extraordinary levels (Table 3). In Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia, blacks are incarcerated at rates that exceed 2,000 per 100,000. The lowest incarceration rate for blacks, 570 in North Dakota, exceeds the highest rate for whites, 440 in Arizona.
These rates of incarceration reflect a marked increase since the late 1980s. Although rates increased for both whites and blacks in most states between 1988 and 1996, the black rate in most states increased more than the white rate. The national black rate of incarceration increased 67 percent, from 922 per 100,000 black residents to 1547, while the white rate increased 28 percent, from 134 to 188 per 100,000 white residents (Table 4). In nine states --Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin -- the black rate of incarceration doubled. In another twenty-six states, the rate increased by fifty percent or more. In contrast, the white rate increased by fifty percent in fifteen states; in only two states (South Dakota and Washington) did the white rate double. As a result, the ratio of the rates of black to white incarceration increased from 6.8 to 8.2.
Rates of Incarceration of Black and White Men
Since most inmates are adult men, an even more significant measure of the extent of racial disparities in state prison populations and of the sheer magnitude of black incarceration is obtained from comparing the racially disaggregated incarceration rates of men over the age of eighteen.27 In no state are black men incarcerated at rates even close to those of white men (Figure 4). Nationwide, black men are incarcerated at 9.6 times the rate of white men. In eleven states, black men are incarcerated at rates that are twelve to twenty-six times greater than those of white men (Table 5). Thus, in Minnesota, the state with the greatest racial disparity in incarceration, a black man is 26.8 times more likely to be in prison than a white man. In Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, a black man is more than fifteen times more likely to be in prison than a white man. In the District of Columbia, black men are incarcerated at 49 times the rate of white men.
The rate at which black men are incarcerated is astonishing. There are 4,630 black men in prison nationwide per 100,000 black men in the population, whereas the rate for white men is 482.28 In ten states and the District of Columbia, black men are incarcerated at staggeringly high rates that range from 5,740 to 7,859 per 100,000. In contrast, the range among the ten states with the highest rates of white male incarceration is 620 to 1,151. The highest rate of white male incarceration (1,151) is lower than the lowest rate of black male incarceration (1,195). According to Department of Justice calculations, if current rates of incarceration remain unchanged, 28.5 percent of black men will be confined in prison at least once during their lifetime, a figure six times greater than that for white men.29
Because of their extraordinary rate of incarceration, one in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in a state or federal prison, compared to one in every 180 whites. In certain states, the incarceration of black men reaches devastating levels: in Oklahoma and Iowa one in every thirteen black men is in state prison; in Rhode Island, Texas and Wisconsin, the figure is one in every fourteen (Table 6).17 See generally, Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate (New York: The New Press, 1999) pp. 118-142; David Cole, No Equal Justice. Although racial bias may play a role in individual cases, most researchers believe racial disparities in the criminal justice system are primarily the result of indirect discrimination; the impact of race-linked (e.g. poverty, education, neighborhood of arrest) disadvantages compounded through out the criminal justice processing system; specific "social structural contexts;" and such legally relevant race neutral variables as the existence of prior records. See, generally, Robert J. Sampson and Janet L. Lauritsen, "Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Crime and Criminal Justice in the United States," in Michael Tonry, ed., Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). 18 Jails typically confine people awaiting trial or who have been sentenced to a year or less of confinement. 19 BJS, 1998 Sourcebook, Table 4.10 (arrests), Table 6.28 (jail inmates); Allen J. Beck and Christopher J. Mumola, "Prisoners in 1998," Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (August 1999). 20 BJS, 1998 Sourcebook, Table 6.2. 21 Marc Mauer, Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later, (Washington D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 1995). 22 BJS, "Inmates at Midyear 1999." 23 Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, Losing the Vote.
24 In 1970, blacks constituted 41 percent of combined state and federal prison populations and whites 58 percent. In 1997, blacks constituted 49.2 percent of the prison population and whites 48.3 percent. Margaret Werner Cahalan, Historical Corrections Statistics in the United States, 1850-1984, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (December 1986), Table 3.31; BJS, "Prisoners in 1998."
25 As used in this report, prison "admissions" refers to new court commitments to prison, i.e., persons sent to prison upon conviction or upon revocation of probation. It does not include persons returned to prison for parole violations unless they have received a new sentence.
26 One analyst of racial disparities in U.S. incarceration has suggested that low white imprisonment rates are a key factor in creating high racial disproportions. Leena Kurki, "Racial Incarceration Disparities," Overcrowded Times, December 1999, p. 5. Other researchers have suggested that states with relatively smaller black populations have more racial disproportionality in their prison population. George S. Bridges and Robert D. Crutchfield, "Law, social standing and racial disparities in imprisonment," 22 Social Problems 31 (1975); See also, Darnell F. Hawkins and Kenneth A. Hardy, "Black-white imprisonment rates: A state-by-state analysis," 16 Social Justice 75 (1989), which suggests that the percent of a state's black population that is urban may be even more determinative; northern states have larger urban concentrations than southern states, and have higher racial disparities in their incarcerated population.
27 Men constitute 93.5% of all inmates. BJS, "Prisoners in 1998," Table 7.
28 The rate of incarceration of black men in federal and state jail and prison populations increased at ten times the rate of white men between 1985 and 1995. See Michael Tonry, "Crime and Punishment in America, 1971-1996," Overcrowded Times, April 1998, p. 15.
29 BJS,"Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison."