The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons
This report documents the rates of incarceration for white, Black and Latinx Americans in each state, identifies three contributors to racial and ethnic disparities in imprisonment, and provides recommendations for reform.
Related to: Racial Justice, Incarceration
When former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck in 2020, the world witnessed the most racist elements of the U.S. criminal legal system on broad display. The uprisings that followed Floyd’s death articulated a vision for transforming public safety practices and investments. Almost one year later, Chauvin was convicted for Floyd’s death, a rare outcome among law enforcement officers who kill unarmed citizens. The fight for racial justice within the criminal legal system continues, however. The data findings featured in this report epitomize the enormity of the task.
This report details our observations of staggering disparities among Black and Latinx people imprisoned in the United States given their overall representation in the general population. The latest available data regarding people sentenced to state prison reveal that Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is roughly five times the rate of white Americans. During the present era of criminal justice reform, not enough emphasis has been focused on ending racial and ethnic disparities systemwide.
Going to prison is a major life-altering event that creates obstacles to building stable lives in the community, such as gaining employment and finding stable and safe housing after release. Imprisonment also reduces lifetime earnings and negatively affects life outcomes among children of incarcerated parents.1 These are individual-level consequences of imprisonment but there are societal level consequences as well: high levels of imprisonment in communities cause high crime rates and neighborhood deterioration, thus fueling greater disparities.2 This cycle both individually and societally is felt disproportionately by people who are Black. It is clear that the outcome of mass incarceration today has not occurred by happenstance but has been designed through policies created by a dominant white culture that insists on suppression of others.
At the same time, states have begun to chip away at mass incarceration. Nine states have lowered their prison population by 30% or more in recent years: Alaska, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Alabama, Rhode Island, Vermont, Hawaii, and California.3 This decline has been accomplished through a mix of reforms to policy and practice that reduce prison admissions as well as lengths of stay in prison. Still, America maintains its distinction as the world leader4 in its use of incarceration, including more than 1.2 million people held in state prisons around the country.5
Truly meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system cannot be accomplished without acknowledgement of its racist underpinnings. Immediate and focused attention on the causes and consequences of racial disparities is required in order to eliminate them. True progress towards a racially just system requires an understanding of the variation in racial and ethnic inequities in imprisonment across states and the policies and day-to-day practices that drive these inequities.6
This report documents the rates of incarceration for whites, African Americans, and Latinx individuals, providing racial and ethnic composition as well as rates of disparity for each state.7 The Sentencing Project has produced state-level estimates twice before8 and once again finds staggering disproportionalities.
- Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans.
- 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.
- Latinx individuals are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 1.3 times the incarceration rate of whites. Ethnic disparities are highest in Massachusetts, which reports an ethnic differential of 4.1:1.
- Eliminate mandatory sentences for all crimes.
Mandatory minimum sentences, habitual offender laws, and mandatory transfer of juveniles to the adult criminal system give prosecutors too much authority while limiting the discretion of impartial judges. These policies contributed to a substantial increase in sentence length and time served in prison, disproportionately imposing unduly harsh sentences on Black and Latinx individuals.
- Require prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statutes.
The Sentencing Project urges states to adopt forecasting estimates that will calculate the impact of proposed crime legislation on different populations in order to minimize or eliminate the racially disparate impacts of certain laws and policies. Several states have passed “racial impact statement” laws. To undo the racial and ethnic disparity resulting from decades of tough-on-crime policies, however, states should also repeal existing racially biased laws and policies. The impact of racial impact laws will be modest at best if they remain only forward looking.
- Decriminalize low-level drug offenses.
Discontinue arrest and prosecutions for low-level drug offenses which often lead to the accumulation of prior convictions which accumulate disproportionately in communities of color. These convictions generally drive further and deeper involvement in the criminal legal system.
Clear, T. (2009). Imprisoning communities: How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged communities worse. Oxford University Press. Pager, D. (2007). Marked: Race, crime, and finding work in an era of mass incarceration. University of Chicago Press; Western, B. (2007). Punishment and inequality in America. Russell Sage Foundation.; Wildman, C., Goldman, A. W., & Turney, K., (2018). Parental incarceration and child health in the United States. Epidemiologic Reviews, 40(1), 146-158.
Clear, T. (2009). Imprisoning communities: How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged communities worse. Oxford University Press.
Ghandnoosh, N. (2021). Can we wait 60 years to cut the prison population in half? The Sentencing Project.
Among countries with a population of at least 100,000 residents.
Carson, E. A. (2021). Prisoners in 2019. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Neill, K. A., Yusuf, J., & Morris, J.C. (2014). Explaining dimensions of state-level punitiveness in the United States: The roles of social, economic, and cultural factors. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 26(2), 751-772.
This report limits the presentation of data to these three categories because white, Black, and Latinx individuals comprise the vast majority of people in prison.
Mauer, M. & King, R. (2007). Uneven justice: State rates of incarceration by race and ethnicity. The Sentencing Project; Nellis, A. (2016). The color of justice: Racial and ethnic disparity in state prisons. The Sentencing Project.