Blacks imprisoned more than whites, but gap narrows

SACRAMENTO, California (AP) – Racial disparities have narrowed across the United States (US) criminal justice system over 16 years, though blacks are still significantly more likely to be behind bars than whites, new federal figures show.

Racial gaps broadly declined in local jails, state prisons, and among people on probation and parole, according to the study released yesterday by the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice. The divide in state imprisonment rates dropped for all major crimes but was most pronounced for drug offences – a key driving factor for the racial shift. Blacks were 15 times more likely than whites to be in state prisons for drug crimes in 2000, but that dropped to five times as likely by 2016, the most recent year available.

Many don’t realise how much the racial gap has narrowed, not only in incarceration but in parole and probation, said Adam Gelb, president and chief executive of the politically diverse council that launched in July to seek solutions to problems in the criminal justice system.

“Most people think this is a bad problem that’s getting worse,” said Gelb, whose group has brought together governors of both parties, police officials and Black Lives Matter organisers. “It turns out it’s a bad problem that’s getting a little better, and for very complex reasons that we need to understand at a much deeper level.”

Critics contend minorities’ disproportionate involvement in the US criminal justice system reflects systemic racial bias. Researchers have blamed prejudice by police, prosecutors, judges and juries; racial differences in crimes; and get-tough sentencing laws during the high crime era of the 1980s and ’90s.

While racial inequity in arrests and incarcerations narrowed, the length of prison sentences increased across all crime types for black people and partially offset the benefits, according to the report co-authored by Georgia State University professor William Sabol, former director of the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Among the other findings of the report, which is based on numbers from the bureau, the FBI and other national statistics:

– Nine African American men were in state prisons for every white inmate in 2000, which dropped to a still disparate six black men for every white man by 2016. The change mostly stemmed from a 30 per cent decline in the black male imprisonment rate, largely driven by falling drug crimes.