Racial biases in the criminal justice system have started to decline, according to new research by the bipartisan Council on Criminal Justice, but that is no reason to celebrate. Mostly black and brown faces still fill the country’s jails and prisons, and people of color make up most of the parole and probation rolls. The work is not done until the gap is eliminated and the unfair targeting of people of color has ended.
Still, the strides the report outlined shouldn’t be ignored. The imprisonment rate for black men decreased for all crime categories except public order offenses, such as disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, according to the report, which analyzed data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics spanning 2000 to 2016. African Americans were incarcerated at a rate 8.3 times higher than white people in 2000, and for Hispanic people the rate was 2.6 times higher. By 2016 those ratios dropped to 5.1 to 1 and 1.6 to 1, respectively, according to the study.
While that represents progress, African Americans are still five times more likely to be imprisoned than white people and Hispanics nearly twice as likely, and both imbalances are wholly unacceptable. The culture of locking up people of color, whether because of unconscious biases our outright discrimination, is still alive and well. Just recently, The New York Times reported that police officers said they were told by a commander to go after blacks and Latinos for minor offenses like jumping turnstiles. Leave Asians and whites alone, they were instructed.
If there is a bright spot to the numbers, it’s that they offer encouragement to those who have kept issues like mass incarceration, mandatory minimums and unfair sentencing in the spotlight. It adds even more credence to the good work of groups like the Innocence Project that have worked, sometimes on shoestring budgets, to free those who have been wrongly convicted based on trumped up charges, coerced confessions and bad witness testimony. All of this activism has helped keep up the pressure to end biases by showing the tragic result such disparities in sentencing and imprisonment have. It’s well documented people with prison records have a hard time getting jobs and that incarceration breaks up families. We need more resources directed at these issues, and these groups need to keep plowing ahead to keep the biases in law enforcement at the forefront.
Researchers with the Council on Criminal Justice say they will use the data collected to come up with policies that can help further erode the disparities in the system. They concede that outcomes vary by race and type of crime, making it hard to point to a single cause for the disparities. The largest drop in racial disparity occurred for drug offenses, which also correlated with a drop in disparity of those who were jailed. We need to know more about why those drops occurred and whether similar principles should be applied in other areas.
Researchers also should conduct an analysis by state and region to see if the problem is more pronounced in certain parts of the country. Do factors such as past crime history impact whether or not someone ends up in jail again? In other words, is the prison pipeline cycle perpetuating itself? Also, how do police departments change a culture in which police officers scrutinize people of color more intensely than white residents? Racial bias, bail reform and the over-policing of low income neighborhoods are all areas ripe for reform.
Adam Gelb, president and chief executive of the Council on Criminal Justice, told various news outlets that he was heartened the disparities turned out to be "a bad problem that’s getting a little better, and for very complex reasons that we need to understand at a much deeper level.”