A Mass Incarceration Mystery: Why are black imprisonment rates going down? Four theories

February 27, 2018

"One of the most damning features of the U.S. criminal justice system is its vast racial inequity. Black people in this country are imprisoned at more than 5 times the rate of whites; one in 10 black children has a parent behind bars, compared with about one in 60 white kids, according to the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality.

 

The crisis has persisted for so long that it has nearly become an accepted norm.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that for the last 15 years, racial disparities in the American prison system have actually been on the decline, according to a Marshall Project analysis of yearly reports by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system."

 

Here are four (not mutually exclusive or exhaustive) theories, compiled from our research and interviews with prison system experts, to explain the nearly two-decades-long narrowing of the racial gap in incarceration.

 

1) Crime, arrests and incarceration are declining overall.

2) The war on drugs has shifted its focus from crack and marijuana to meth and opioids.

3) White people have also faced declining socioeconomic prospects, leading to more criminal justice involvement.

4) Criminal justice reform has been happening in cities, where more black people live, but not in rural areas.

 

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