Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons

The Sentencing Project has recently released the following report, Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons. This study examines the racial disparities that exist for Black and Latinx Americans in state prisons across the country, and provides recommendations for criminal justice reform. In total, Black Americans are imprisoned at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans; and Latinx Americans are imprisoned at 1.3 times the rate of white Americans.

Other key findings include:

  • Nationally, one in 81 Black adults in the U.S. is serving time in state prison. Wisconsin leads the nation in Black imprisonment rates; one of every 36 Black Wisconsinites is in prison.
  • In 12 states, more than half the prison population is Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
  • Seven states maintain a Black/white disparity larger than 9 to 1: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

To address these disparities, the author recommends that mandatory sentences for all crimes are eliminated, as “[t]hese policies contributed to a substantial increase in sentence length and time served in prison, disproportionately imposing unduly harsh sentences on Black and Latinx individuals.” The author also stresses the need for “prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statues” to calculate how different racial populations will be affected by proposed crime legislation. Decriminalizing low-level drug offenses is also recommended, as these offenses have a disproportional effect on communities of color.


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