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.


  1. Matt Wavle

    I’d like a lot more information on the reasons people are being jailed before I’d draw conclusions like this.  For instance, if 75% of all rapist are black and only 25% are white, then we should not simply release two-thirds of that 75% in order to maintain a racial mix similar to the county or area that the crime was committed in.  Equality in front of the law would require that we act in a color-blind way in order to do justice in an equal fashion and not in a way that would create a double standard in order to maintain certain quotas.

  2. Damian Robinson

    I wished this was a little bit longer.

    I wanted it hear more about the socioeconomic reasons for this trend which was touched on.
  3. Jonathan Taylor

    I’d like to hear some statistics about how laws not based on race are affecting people differently based on race. 

    I suspect that government social programs that keep certain groups dependent and hurt some neighborhoods are more to blame than the justice system.
  4. rlspann89

    Much of the socioeconomic issues that contribute to unequal representation in prison populations are rooted very deeply in how long it took for America to end segregation combined with the deterioration of black and Hispanic neighborhoods/communities following segregation’s end.

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