Racial Disparities in Prison

It’s hard to talk about problems you can’t see. Most Americans will never see the inside of a prison. That’s precisely why the invisible problem of prison-system bias isn’t known by most people in the United States. For those who are affected, the repercussions reverberate through families, communities, and generations. Incarceration bias hits the African American community particularly hard. While African Americans account for just 13.4 percent of the population of the United States, they represent 38.2 percent of the nation’s prison population.

Why Is There Racial Disparity in the Prison System?

While the roots of the prison-system bias that we see today have been generations in the making, it’s especially hard to untangle incarceration bias from drug-related laws introduced throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In a study published in 2020 that reviewed data from more than 95 million traffic stops among dozens of police agencies over a span of seven years, researchers discovered that African American drivers were far more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. This is significant because drivers arrested for drug-related offenses during traffic stops can face federal incarceration under the three-strikes law. African Americans are disproportionately arrested and convicted on drug-related charges even though they use drugs at a drastically lower rate than white Americans.

The Underpinnings of Prison Bias

Laws and systems going back decades continue to fuel the flooding of prisons with African Americans in disproportionate numbers. While the numbers can be attributed to specific laws in some states, other causes stem from deeply rooted societal standards that remain overlooked in the conversation. For instance, the income disparities between African American communities and other communities create a chasm when it comes to obtaining competent legal counsel during the pretrial phase.

Structural disadvantages also create environments where children who grow up in high-crime areas are simply more likely to have their own encounters with law enforcement and the prison system later in life. A historical lack of access to programs and resources that have helped to build the American middle class has left many in the African American community in insular neighborhoods that are marked by gun violence and poverty. Factors like high rates of unemployment, insecure family systems, exposure to violence, and high dropout rates all contribute to the problem. While the dropout rate for African American students decreased from 11.5 percent to 6.4 percent during the period from 2006 to 2018, it’s still higher than the 4.2 percent dropout rate for white students.

Finally, the lingering implicit bias that permeates the judicial system creates a wider, more direct route to prison for African Americans when compared to other groups once they enter the courts. In legal settings, implicit bias can cause policymakers and judges to have skewed views on their perceptions of public threats based on the background of the person being charged. This can lead to harsher sentencing. In trials, juror perceptions are also influenced by messaging they have seen in news and media regarding race and violent offenses.

Ending Prison Bias: The Work That Still Needs to Be Done

Prison reform happens at the root. While the need for changing policies that impact what happens in the courtroom is essential, there is also an urgency when it comes to digging up biases that are setting up the African American population to be more likely to face police encounters, arrests, charges, and harsh sentencing than other populations. It’s hard to talk about problems you can’t see. Being aware that a population representing just 13.4 percent of the total United States population accounts for more than 38 percent of its prisoners means that the problem is no longer invisible.