Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons

There are 2.2 million imprisoned people in the United States, and 1.2 million of these detainees are serving their time in state prison. The United States prison system is known for its mass imprisonment. In the state prison system, there is a disproportion in the race of the inmate population. You are bound to find an ethnic minority in a state prison more than a white prisoner. While the number of prison inhabitants that are Black American dominates, White Americans are the least imprisoned race. 

It is reported that Black Americans are the most incarcerated ethnic group, and they are five times more likely to be imprisoned than white Americans. Furthermore, Latino Americans’ incarceration rate is 1.3 times more than that of White Americans. The average imprisonment rate of Black Americans per 100,000 US residents is 1,240 individuals, Latino American is 349 individuals, and for White Americans are 261 individuals.  

While this is on the average level, the disproportion in the incarceration rate in inmates by race in some states is higher. For instance, Wisconsin State has the highest imprisonment rate of black Americans. While per 100,000 black American people in the state, 2,742 persons are in prison, the white American imprisonment rate per 100,000 residents is 230 persons. To provide more context of the disparity in the incarceration rate in Wisconsin, black Americans are just 6% of the state’s 5.822 million population

Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate for Black Americans, where 466 black individuals per 100,000 residents are in prison. However, they are still 1.8 times more likely to be in prison than white Americans (260 persons per 100,000 residents).   

Idaho State has the highest rate of incarceration for Latino Americans, where 742 individuals per 100,000 Latino American residents are serving time in an Idaho prison.

New Jersey has the highest odds in the likelihood of the incarceration of a black person to a white person. Per 100,000 residents, the incarceration rate for Black Americans is 1,009, while for White Americans is 81. It means that a black person is 12.5 times more likely to be in prison than a white person in New Jersey. 

In some states, more than 50% of the inmate population are Black Americans. These states include:

  • Alabama 
  • Delaware 
  • Georgia 
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana 
  • Maryland 
  • Michigan 
  • Mississippi 
  • New Jersey 
  • North Carolina 
  • South Carolina
  • Virginia

Contributing Factors to the Disparity

The issue of mass incarceration in the prison system due to partial policies is a major issue that has resulted in the disproportionate incarceration rate among the different ethnic and racial groups. Nationwide, one in every 81 adult black American is serving a prison sentence at a state correctional facility. This dates back to policies that encouraged frequent incarceration in states due to drug offenses. 

Harsh sentencing policies for such offenses resulted in the general rise of the prison population. However, some communities were affected more due to prejudice against their race and ethnicity.

Policing policies and the difference in the interaction of law enforcement officers with individuals of different races contribute to the disparity. Many instances of police brutality against black people compared to other races occur. There is a glaring bias in the police-citizen relationship in some communities. Multiple reports of law enforcement officers using unnecessary restraining techniques, executing warrants illegally, or conducting a biased stop and search are not uncommon.     

A significant aspect of the ethnic disparity in state prisons is the racial prejudice in the justice system. Racial prejudice affects people of color, especially black people. The justice system perceives people of color as more threatening to public safety. It results in more severe punishments for offenses committed. Generally, many individuals, including people who make decisions in the justice system, can stereotype a racial/ethnic group as more dangerous, violent, or likely to commit crimes. 

Another factor is the role of the media in attributing criminal activities to an ethnic or racial group. The media have more inclination to portray crimes that involve offenders that are people of color. The media tends to influence the perception of the general public. 

Imprisonment from pre-trial detention is more likely to affect black or Latino defendants than white defendants due to social factors. The income inequality in the nation of which people of color are more unemployed without anyone to depend on financially can affect their chances of paying bonds/bail. Therefore, they are unable to secure a pretrial release and are likely to receive harsher sentencing. 

Because black people are more susceptible to convictions for minor offenses, the policy of using the criminal history of offenders at sentencing affects them more. Repeat offenders can serve a longer prison sentence than the usual imprisonment time for the crime committed. In Minnesota, research suggests that this factor contributes to two-thirds of racial disparities in the state’s incarceration rate. 

Combating the Ethnic and Racial Disparity in State Prisons

The harsh policies that influence the unnecessary incarceration of individuals convicted of minor drug offenses have to be eradicated. There are alternative ways such as putting resources into drug prevention and intervention programs. The current policies increase the incarceration rate in states and are unfairly targeted at some communities of color, further increasing the disparity. 

The judicial system of many states still practices mandatory minimum sentencing and the use of the criminal history of defendants in sentencing. Some defendants may no longer be a threat to public safety, and these policies make it impossible for the court to provide alternative sentencing for them. Such states need to revise their sentencing policies and allow the court to judge defendants based on who they are. It will also help to lower the recidivism rate in the state.