State Prisons Have High Rates of Minority Prisoners, study affirms

By Christopher Zoukis

The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based non-profit group, on June 14 released a landmark study of the racial and ethnic characteristics of inmates in state prisons, which found African-Americans are on average incarcerated at a rate more than five times higher (5.1, to be precise) than the rate for whites.

The study compared Census state population data with results from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Prisoners Series survey, which annually compiles data on state prison populations; it used data from the 2014 survey. It then calculated each state’s average rate of incarceration for whites, blacks and Hispanics, per 100,000 of population.

Census data shows the nation’s general population is 62% white, 17% Hispanic, and 13% black. According to the Justice survey, state prison population overall is 38% black, 35% white, and 21% Hispanic. While African-Americans do not constitute a majority of the overall population in any state, in 12 states they comprise a majority of state prison inmates.

Eight of those states are below the Mason-Dixon line (Alabama, both Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and Virginia); the others where black inmates make up especially high percentages of state prison populations are Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey.

The study found blacks have an overall state prison incarceration rate of 1,408 per 100,000, compared with 378 for Hispanics and 275 for whites. But racial disparities vary widely from state to state. New Jersey state prisons have the nation’s most disproportionate ratio of black male inmates to white male inmates, with 12.2 times as many black prisoners as white prisoners.

Incarceration affects at least 5% of black males in 11 states. The overall average for state incarceration of black adult males is 1 in 26. In eleven states, at least 1 in 20 adult black males is in prison.

The state with the largest disparity for incarceration rates between blacks and whites is Oklahoma, which has the highest incarceration rates per 100,000 for both whites (580) and for blacks (2,625).

States where 10% or more of the black adult male population are incarcerated include Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Even the states which incarcerate the lowest overrepresentation of black males in their state prison populations (Hawaii’s 2.4 to 1 is the lowest), black prisoners are incarcerated at more than double the rate for white prisoners.

Hispanics also appear at an overall 1.4 times higher rate in state prisons than do whites, with have particularly high incarceration rates relative to whites in northeastern states such as Massachusetts (4.3 times higher), Connecticut (3.9 times), Pennsylvania (3.3 times), and New York (3.1 times). Latinos make up 61% of the state prison population in New Mexico, 42% in California and Arizona, and 20% or more in seven other states (Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, Nevada, and Texas).

The report, The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons, identifies three main factors that may contribute to the racial and ethnic imbalances in the state prison populations: criminal justice policies and practices (such as three-strike laws or heavy penalties for drug-related offenses), structural disadvantages affecting minority groups (such as poverty and unemployment rates, and housing and education deficits), or disparate treatment in arrests, prosecutions or sentencing.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com