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Racial Inequality in the Criminal Justice System

Fewer than half of 1 percent of Americans are in state and federal prisons. That sounds like a small number. But when the U.S. prison population is examined by race, we find that the effects of the criminal justice system in the United States are unequally distributed in society. While whites make up 64 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 31 percent of the incarcerated population. In contrast, Blacks represent 14 percent of society but 36 percent of prisoners. Similarly, Hispanics represent 16 percent of the U.S. population, but 24 percent of the prison population.

While fewer than 1 in 100 Americans are in jail, among the population of young black men, the ratio is closer to 1 out of 4. A young black man is more likely to be imprisoned than to get married or go to college. Professor Daniel D’Amico argues that while the causes of this trend are complicated and multicausal, perhaps part of the blame should be placed on the U.S. criminal justice system.

He points out problems with the perverse incentives politicians and bureaucrats have in developing laws. Although laws about drug prohibition, for example, are ostensibly color blind, people with different levels of wealth face different costs and benefits to participating in the drug trade. Minorities are overrepresented in U.S. prisons. In light of this, Prof. D’Amico argues that radical changes to the system might be necessary and preferable to the status quo.

The War on Pot Is Both Insanely Racist and Insanely Expensive, New Report Says [article]: Reason magazine reports on a new ACLU study showing staggering racial bias and a tremendous waste of funds in the War on Drugs


Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests [study]: The ACLU study on racial discrimination and waste in the War on Marijuana


Racial Inequality, Social Policy and Prisons: 1980-2000 [PowerPoint presentation]: A series of charts about the implications of racial inequality in America's justice system


War on Drugs [cartoon]: Political cartoon comparing slavery to the prison industrial complex


Pettit on the Prison Population, Survey Data and African-American Progress [podcast]: Econtalk episode about how the racial disparity we see in prison statistics might be even worse than D'Amico suggests


Jesse Jackson, Black Leaders Are Right About Ending the War on Drugs [article]: Huffington Post piece on "the racism and hypocrisy in our nation's war on drugs"


War on drugs a trillion-dollar failure [op-ed]: Sir Richard Branson argues that the War on Drugs "represents racial discrimination and targeting disguised as drug policy"


The War on Drugs and the New Jim Crow [article]: A social justice perspective on the racist character of the war on drugs


The racial composition of the prison population in the United States is very different from the population at large. If people are worried about inequality in America today, I think this deserves more attention and discussion. Racial inequality in the criminal justice system gets ignored because it doesn’t affect most people.

In 2010 over 1.6 million people were in state and federal prisons within the United States. So 497 out of every 100,000 Americans were in jail, about half of 1 percent. Less than 1 percent. It doesn’t seem very large, but when you separate that population by race you recognize that the personal effects of the criminal justice system are very unequally shared throughout our society.

Whites make up 64 percent of the total population but only 31 percent of the incarcerated population. Blacks represent 14 percent of society but 36 percent of the prison population. Hispanics are 16 percent of America but 24 percent of the American prison population.

Less than 1 in 100 Americans are currently in jail, but for some races, genders, and age groups, that ratio is a lot larger. For example, if you’re young, black, and male, it’s closer to about and one in four. That means you’d have a higher probability of going to jail than of getting married or going to college.

These results are unequal and problematic, as poor black communities lack so many of their members. But what can be done? The causes of this trend are undoubtedly complicated and multicausal, but there is reason to suggest that part of the blame is our criminal justice system itself.

In the ways police officers enforce laws, in the ways that laws are written and prosecuted, and more. In many cases it is not overt racism by individual actors; many police officers, prosecutors, and judges are undoubtedly trying to be fair and trying to do the right thing.

But economics can explain how unequal enforcement of the criminal law happens anyway. This is because the political and bureaucratic structure of the criminal justice system creates perverse incentives. The formal laws surrounding drug prohibition, for example, are written as if to be color blind, but people with different levels of wealth face different costs and benefits to participating in the drug trade.

Different groups consume different drugs at different rates, and, lastly, those groups are politically represented in very different quantities. Thus, they are arrested and incarcerated at very different rates. How could minority groups hope to use the political process to fix inequality when they are systematically overincarcerated and disenfranchised?

Despite noble intentions, politics often does not affect the basic incentives of costs and benefits faced by political or citizen actors. We might need a new approach to social change if we’re going to address these problems. We definitely need more study into the causes of inequality. And we should admit that radical changes might be both necessary and preferable to the status quo.

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