African-American Race and the Criminal Justice System: The Effect on Black Communities
Racial Disparities and Incarceration
Recent studies have shown that race is a factor in the criminal justice system. For example, a study analyzing statewide sentencing outcomes in Pennsylvania for 1989-1992, found that, net of controls: (1) young black males are sentenced more harshly than any other group, (2) race is most influential in the sentencing of younger rather than older males (Steffensmeier, et al., 1998). The relationship between African-American males and the criminal justice system has been described as being no less than a crisis. In recent years policy attention regarding the crisis of the African-American male has focused on a variety of areas in which African-American males have suffered disproportionately from social ills. These have included education, housing, employment, and health care, among others. Perhaps in no other area, though, have these problems been displayed as prominently as in the realm of crime and the criminal justice system.
African-Americans have been affected in this area in two significant regards. First, African-Americans are more likely to be victimized by crime than are other groups. This creates a set of individual and community problems which impede upon other areas of productive activity. Second, the dramatic rates at which African-American males have come under some form of criminal justice supervision has created a complex set of consequences which affect not only individual victims and offenders, but families and communities as well (Mauer 1999; Spohn and Holloran, 2000).
The state of these disproportions can be seen in the following:
• 49% of prison inmates nationally are African-American, compared to their 13% share of the overall population.
• Nearly one in three (32%) black males in the age group 20-29 is under some form of criminal justice supervision on any given day -- either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.
• As of 1995, one in fourteen (7%) adult black males was incarcerated in prison or jail on any given day, representing a doubling of this rate from 1985. The 1995 figure for white males was 1%.
• A black male born in 1991 has a 29% chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life. The figure for white males is 4%, and for Hispanics, 16%.
Prominent analyses of the overall racial composition of the prison population have been conducted by criminologist Alfred Blumstein. In an examination of the 1991 state prison population, he concluded that 76% of the higher black rate of imprisonment could be accounted for by higher rates of arrest for serious offenses. While this held true for most crimes, the critical exception in this regard was drug offenses, which will be detailed further below. The remaining 24% of disparity might be explained by criminal histories, racial bias, or other factors (Mauer, 1999).
High incarceration rates among black and low-education men have been traced to similar sources. The slim economic opportunities and turbulent living conditions of young disadvantaged and black men may lead them to crime. In addition, elevated rates of offending in poor and minority neighborhoods compound the stigma of social marginality and provoke the scrutiny of criminal justice authorities.
Research on carceral inequalities usually examines racial disparity in state imprisonment. The leading studies of Blumstein find that arrest rates -- particularly for serious offenses like homicide -- explain a large share of the black-white difference in incarceration. Because police arrests reflect crime in the population and policing effort, arrest rates are an imperfect measure of criminal involvement.
More direct measurement of the race of criminal offenders is claimed for surveys of crime victims who report the race of their assailants. Victimization data similarly suggest that the disproportionate involvement of blacks in crime explains most of the racial disparity in incarceration. These results are buttressed by research associating violent and other crime in black neighborhoods with joblessness, family disruption, and neighborhood poverty (Pettit & Western, 2004).
In short, most of the racial disparity in imprisonment is attributed to high black crime rates for imprisonable offenses Although crime rates may explain as much as
80% of the disparity in imprisonment, a significant residual suggests that blacks are punitively policed, prosecuted, and sentenced. Sociologists of punishment link this…
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