October 24, 2014

African-Americans & Criminal Justice

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, our nation currently incarcerates about 2,000,000 human beings. Of that number, African-Americans constitute anywhere from 45-70% of state and federal prisoners. In states such as Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and the District of Columbia, the percentage of incarcerated African-Americans compared to the total population ranges from 65% to 97%. In Mississippi, African-Americans are 75% of the prison population but only 36% of the general population.1 These outrageous disparities can be accounted for in part by the fact that efforts to reduce crime in 1980’s and 1990’s were targeted at minority communities. Between 1985 and 1997, 75% of federal prison growth is accounted for by people of color. Forty-one percent of the growth came from the African-American community and 32% from the Latino community.2

These numbers beg the question–are people of color committing more crime relative to their numbers? Absolutely not. The vast majority of people filling new prisons are nonviolent property and drug offenders. It is well known that African-American and Anglo-American rates of drug usage is nearly equal to their proportion of the population. That is, African-Americans are 13% of the U.S. population and 13% of illicit drug users are Black. Likewise, Anglo-Americans are 70% of the U.S. population and 70% of illicit drug users are white. Yet, we are incarcerated at six times the rate of our white counterparts. Why?

According to the Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission, the “war on drugs” with its mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and harsher sentencing legislation accounts for much of the racial disparity in incarceration rates. Racial and class discrimination at every level of the criminal justice system makes it likely that people of color receive the harshest sentences and poorest representation. One researcher has noted that the war on drug proponents of the 1980’s failed to clarify that “the police enforcement of new drug laws would focus almost exclusively on low-level dealers in minority neighborhoods. Police found more drugs in minority communities because that is where they looked for them. Had they pointed the drug war at college campuses, it is likely that our jails would now be filled overwhelmingly with university students.”3

A study sponsored by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, found that minority youths were convicted of felonies more often than whites even when the offense could be considered a misdemeanor.4 A California study exemplifies the extent of discrimination against minorities beyond sentencing. Although African-Americans accounted for 70% of inmates convicted of drug offenses, 67% of treatment slots went to whites. It is treatment that decreases recidivism and reduces jail time. Unfortunately, the conclusions of vol. 101 no. 7 of the 1988 Harvard Law Review remain authoritative: discrimination against African-Americans exists at every stage of the criminal justice process.

Although harsh public policies are being called into question, the trend toward alternatives will not survive without public support. As the public mood shifts from supporting punishment to supporting rehabilitation, communities disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system will have to find ways to advance creative alternatives to prison and to help ex-prisoners make an exodus from the jurisdiction of the courts toward the promise of another chance, a real chance, after prison.


1Barry Holman, “Masking the Divide: How Officially Reported Prison Statistics Distort the Racial and Ethnic Realities of Prison Growth,” National Center on Institutions and Alternatives Research Public Policy Report (May, 2001).
2Ibid, 12.
3Steven R. Donziger, The Real War on Crime: The Report of the National Criminal Justice Commission (New York: HarperCollins, 1996),
4Ibid, 123.