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. fred

    I am surprised this video doesn’t have more likes!

  2. fred

    I know, right?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Anonymous

    This all starts at the inequality in our educational system.  

  7. 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.

  8. Anonymous

    I am absolutely flabbergasted that Learn Liberty would publish such a totally bogus video. It implies that the reason that blacks are incarcerated in numbers greater than their share of the population is some sort of systemic and vicious racism. Their use of statistics is absurd. I expect better of Learn Liberty.
    Let’s consider some other statistics. Women make up roughly 50% of the population but make up less than 12% of U.S. prison population. The result of a sinister, sexist plot against men, perchance?

    Professor D’Amico showed statistics on incarceration rates by race, but one thing was conveniently missing. What about incarceration rates of Asians. In California, according to the lastest (2013) census data, Asians make up 14.1% of the State’s population but, according to data published by the California Department of Corrections, only 1% of the state’s prison population. Does this prove that whites are victims of racism because they are being incarcerated at rates higher than that of Asians?

    Why would anyone be surprised that members of different cultural, social, or ethnic groups are going to behave differently.  In the U.S. in 2008, 72% of black children were born to single mothers, the rates for other groups are: 17% of Asians, 29% of whites, 53% of Hispanics and 66% of Native Americans. The result of another racist conspiracy?

    I know I am going out on a limb on this one, but I am going to suggest that the incarceration rate of Jewish men with PhDs in Physics is less than their numbers in the general population. But I’m just guessing.

Leave a Reply