Racial Disparity in Incarceration Rates Term Paper

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incarceration in the United States exhibits extreme racial disparity. There are significantly more African-Americans in the prison system than there are in the general population in fact, almost 50% of those incarcerated at any given time are black men and yet the U.S. population is comprised of only 12% African-Americans. (Clear & Cole 2002, Chapter 19) Cole and Clear give three main explanations for this disparity, differential criminality among minorities, racist criminal justice system and lastly a racist general population. (Clear & Cole 2002, Chapter 19) Within all three of these arguments there is some limited validity, yet it is also clear that there is still problem in need of serious address. Racial disparity within prison and corrections in general is the most serious issue facing the corrections industry today.

The effects of racial disparity in incarceration reach much farther than the effects inside the social and economic structure of the prison's themselves and this disparity is likely to continue to feed itself through the societal effects to the whole population. Initial discrimination in the general population assails minorities with conflict and disproportionate social and economic challenges. "Restricted and isolated from the institutionalized means to achieve the goals of the dominant culture, many more Negroes than whites are caught in what Merton, Cloward and Ohlin, and others refer to as the differential opportunity structure, and are more likely to commit crime." (Markowitz & Jones-Brown, 2000, p. 58) Social challenges result in a virtual vacuum of opportunity that does not feed the culture and usually gains in severity when economic hardship attacks the whole of society.

The degree of disparity is so extreme that the most crucial issue to address is a holistic one. Not only is there a documented level of reduced opportunity among minorities there is also a continued degradation associated with the disproportion of incarcerations among those same minorities.

When a family member is arrested, the family not only loses that person's income, (70) they also acquire additional expenses involved in maintaining contact with the incarcerated family member. (71) Incarceration increases the burden on mothers who are left to provide for their children without the help of fathers. (72) ... one of the costs of long-term incarceration is deepened social disorganization in already troubled neighborhoods. (73) (Coker, 2003)

The challenges of maintaining communication and the additional burdens on single parents and even in some cases grandparents and other close relatives, reduces the likelihood that children will continue to have contact with one of the most influential person's in their lives, either father or mother. Without this contact the long-term effects on the children are phenomenal and the short- and long-term affects upon these families results in degradation of the entire community. "[r]emoval of these individuals in large numbers from their communities will be associated with higher levels of joblessness, low economic status, and family disruption, which in turn will disrupt the social structural and cultural determinants of community-based social control. (74) (Coker, 2003)

So those who where challenged by a lack of opportunity are then further challenged by a disrupted social environment and the cycle begins again in the next generation. This cycle is one that can potentially degrade the whole of society as the levels of incarceration continue to rise and the social and economic cost must be paid somehow.

The "black" category used in official crime statistics represents African-Americans as a monolithic group and begins the search for that something about the black race that leads to differential crime rates. Official statistics become a means of justifying particular crime control strategies, which have, in turn, had an adverse impact on African-Americans. Tonry observes that the "justification" for "harsh drug and crime control policies," which differentially impact blacks, is "entirely political. Crime is an emotional subject and visceral appeals by politicians to people's fears and resentments are hard to counter" (Knepper, 2000, p. 25)

Yet, the social and political price, reversed and reflected back on what is though of as the "source" of the problem is a heated political tool used to yet again increase minimum mandatory sentences and loosen rules and regulations regarding racially disparate enforcement techniques.

The racial disparities in incarceration likely reflect differential enforcement. Police officers are more likely to stop African-Americans for traffic stops (41) and, once stopped, they are more likely to search the vehicles of African-Americans. (42) For example, 2001 traffic stop data in San Diego found that African-American drivers had a sixty percent greater chance and Hispanic drivers had a thirty-seven percent greater chance of being stopped compared to white drivers. (43) Once stopped, African-American drivers were more likely to have their vehicles searched. (Coker, 2003)

Yet, many challenge this standard for enforcement as it is also found that minorities, were not more likely to demonstrate criminal behaviors in these traffic stops, either reactionary or in issues such as possession. Racial profiling has long been a challenged concept by reformists but there are still many experts who believe in its validity.

Apologists of racial profiling have argued that racial profiling for African-Americans is a rational and efficient use of police resources given that a larger percentage of them commit crimes than do other racial groups. (45) ... The efficiency argument is simply inaccurate. (Coker, 2003)

Though refraining from generalizations, that might further demonstrate discrimination it is also clear that the assumptive use of race as a standard does not pan out as viable or useful for the issue of successful use of resources.

As Professor David Harris notes, research demonstrates just the opposite: officers are less likely to find contraband or uncover other criminal behavior when they use race or ethnicity as a factor in determining whom to stop and search than if they use a non-racial focus on suspicious behavior. (47) "When stops and searches are not racialized, they are more productive." (48) (Coker, 2003)

Traffic stops are not the only racially disparate issue within the enforcement arena, as issues of warrant enforcement is also seen, especially within the drug enforcement area of law enforcement.

... racial disparities in arrest and incarceration for drug offenses are perpetuated is through the disparate use of search warrants. (49) A study of narcotics search warrants in San Diego found racial disparities in the issuance of drug search warrants in San Diego County. (50) African-Americans made up only six percent of the population, but were the subjects of search warrants in twenty percent of the cases. Hispanics, who made up about twenty-four percent of the population, were search warrant subjects in forty-three percent of the cases, and whites, who were sixty-one percent of the county's population, were subjects of search warrants in only thirty-five percent of the cases. (51) ... racial disparities were true in every area of the county, even in predominantly white areas. (52) (Coker, 2003)

Yet, the prominent social myth that racial minorities are more likely than whites to embrace values that accept violence has been repeatedly contradicted, yet remains within the general beliefs of the population, through many means. "Based on our data and analyses, there is enough evidence to conclude that blacks in the general U.S. population are no more likely than whites to embrace values favorable to violence." (Markowitz & Jones-Brown, 2000, p. 58) Not only is there no statistical reason to the assumption that race demonstrates a real factor in the embracing of violent values it is also true that this is still the basis for the reason behind racial disparity in arrest and conviction, resulting in incarceration.

Our findings thus repudiate the idea that the causes of black crime are rooted in unique aspects of black culture ... being black does not imply a greater probability of embracing a subculture of violence as measured by individual's beliefs and attitudes ... within the sociology…

Sources Used in Document:


Clear, T. & Cole, G. (2002) American Corrections: Sixth Edition, New York, NY:


Coker, D. (2003). Foreword: Addressing the Real World of Racial Injustice in the Criminal Justice System. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 93(4), 827+. Retrieved November 14, 2004, from Questia database, http://www.questia.com.

Knepper, P. (2000). Chapter 2 the Alchemy of Race and Crime Research. In The System in Black and White: Exploring the Connections between Race, Crime, and Justice, Markowitz, M.W. & Jones-Brown, D.D. (Eds.) (pp. 15-27). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

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