Giving Compass' Take:

• Data from the Council on Criminal Justice reveals a decline in the racial disparities in incarceration in the United States, although dramatic gaps remain. 

• What role can funders play in ensuring a more equitable criminal justice system? 

• Read a donor's guide to criminal justice reform in the United States

American prison populations have long been characterized by racial and ethnic disparities. U.S. Census Bureau data on incarcerated persons from 1870 through 1980 show that black incarceration rates ranged from three to nine times those of whites, depending upon the decade and region of the country. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports over the past 40 years, black imprisonment rates ranged from about six to about eight times those of whites.

In recent years, racial disparities in imprisonment have decreased. BJS reports have drawn attention to the trend, showing that since the mid-2000s, black and Hispanic incarceration rates have fallen faster than those for whites. These changes also have been noted by media, by advocacy organizations such as The Sentencing Project, and by the National Research Council.

Key Findings

  • From 2000 to 2016, racial and ethnic disparities declined across prison, jail, probation, and parole populations in the U.S. For example, the black-white state imprisonment disparity fell from 8.3-to-1 to 5.1-to-1, and the Hispanic-white parole disparity fell from 3.6-to-1 to 1.4-to-1.
  • Black-white disparities in state imprisonment rates fell across all major crime categories. The largest drop was for drug offenses. In 2000, black people were imprisoned for drug crimes at 15 times the rate of whites; by 2016, that rato was just under 5-to-1.
  • Among women, the black-white disparity in imprisonment fell from 6-to-1 to 2-to-1, a sharper decrease than the decline among men. The disparity among women fell because of an increase in the imprisonment rate for whites for violent, property, and drug crimes, and a decrease in the imprisonment of black women for drug crimes.
  • The change in the black-white male imprisonment disparity occurred as the number of black men in state prisons declined by more than 48,000 (to about 504,000) and the number of white men increased by more than 59,000 (to roughly 476,000). Comparatively, the black-white female disparity decreased as the number of black women in state prison fell by more than 12,000 (to about 24,000) and the number of white women increased by nearly 25,000 (to about 60,000).
  • Reported offending rates of blacks for rape, robbery, and aggravated assault declined by an average of 3% per year between 2000 and 2016, decreases that contributed to a drop in the black imprisonment rate for these crimes. This decrease was offset in part by an increase in the expected time to be served upon admission, which increased for both blacks and whites.
  • Hispanic-white disparities in all four correctional populations have narrowed steadily since 2000. For Hispanics and whites on probation, the data showed no disparity in rates by 2016.