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.
This report updates and advances earlier presentations of data on disparities by examining four questions:
- What are the national-level trends in disparity in probation, parole, jail, and prison populations?
- Are there crime-specific changes in disparity in imprisonment rates?
- Are there differences in disparity by race and sex?
- How have changes in reported offending rates and decisions at the key stages of criminal justice case processing affected black and white imprisonment rates?
The figures and tables that follow present data on these questions. The report describes and analyzes trends in disparity, imprisonment, and criminal justice processing, but the effects of broader social, economic, cultural or political factors on disparity in the criminal justice system are beyond its scope.