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Racial Disparity in Prisons


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A Look at Racial Disparity in the United States Prison System
Micah O’Daniel
Institutional Corrections

Racial inequality in the American criminal justice system has a strong effect of many realms of society such as the family life, and employment. Education and race seem to be the most decisive factors when deciding who goes to jail and what age cohort has the greatest percentage chance of incarceration. Going to prison no longer affects just the individual who committed the crime. Instead, the family and community left behind gain a new burden by one individual's actions. The United States still has a large disparity between Whites and Blacks and now a growing Hispanic population. This racial disparity in the educational system, job sector, and neighborhoods have all contributed to the booming prison population in the latter part of the 20th century which has only continued to widen in the 21st century. At the end of 2006, the Bureau of Justice released data that stated that there were 3,042 black male prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,261 Hispanic male prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males, and 487 white male prisoners per 100,000 white males (USDOJ, 2008). The likelihood of black males going to prison in their lifetime is 16% compared to 2% of white males and 9% of Hispanic males (USDOJ, 2008). Other social factors can be linked to the racial inequality in the criminal justice system such as socioeconomic status, the environment in which a person was raised, and the highest educational level a person achieves. It has been argued by some that the race a person is born into has a substantial effect on the amount of discrimination they experience in their lifetime. In a sociological experiment conducted by Steven Raphael, a black male with no criminal record applying for a certain job had a 14% chance of getting a callback for an interview while a white male applying for the same job had a 34% chance of getting a callback for an interview. If both the black male and white male had criminal records the callback percentage was 5% and 17% respectively. This obvious job discrimination shows that there are significant negative effects on blacks even after their prison sentence has been served. With less opportunity than whites to enter back into the workforce after incarceration, blacks end up having a higher rate of return to prison (USDOJ, 2008). There is also a large disparity between races when it comes to sentencing convicts to Death Row. Looking just at the federal death penalty data released by the Department of Justice between 1995 and 2000, 682 defendants were charged with death-eligible crimes. Out of those 682 defendants, the defendant was black 48% of the cases, Hispanic in 29% of the cases, and white in only 20% of the cases (Coker, 2003). The United States features a prison population that is more than quadruple the highest prison population in Western Europe (Pettit, 2004). In the 1980s, U.S. legislation issued a number of new drug laws with stiffer penalties that ranged from drug possession to drug trafficking. Many of those charged with drug crimes saw longer prison sentences and less judicial leniency when facing trial. The War on Drugs has furthered the boom in prison population even though violent crime has continued to decrease steadily. Many urban areas in the U.S. have a majority black population. With crime tendencies high in these areas, drugs are also prevalent. This means that a greater percentage of those in prison are going to be black because law enforcement is already concentrated in the areas with high violent crime and drug crime. With this new drug legislation, the U.S. government has increased the use of incarceration for social control, which has resulted in "sharper disproportionate effects on African Americans."(Bobo, 2006) In politics, blacks are still in the minority when it comes to winning legislative seats in the state and federal government. Because of this, legislation is being formed and issued through the eyes of the white majority in congress which has led to the continued burden in black communities across the United States. Blacks have a higher chance of going to prison especially if they drop out of high school. The importance of getting a high school education is the difference between going to prison and functioning as a good citizen in society. If a Black male drops out of high school they have a 32.4% chance of going to prison while their White and Hispanic counterparts have a 6.7% and 6% chance respectively (Ayers, 2005). Bruce Western and Becky Pettit use the example of the age cohort that grew up during the Great Depression. These men had to learn to value economic security because of the mass unemployment during the 1930s. They delayed marriage and fatherhood in order to establish themselves with economic security to provide for their families and became the “Greatest Generation” in America (Ayers, 2005).
In the latter part of the 20th century, the age of cohorts born in this period never experienced a major event in their lives like the Great Depression and therefore underestimated their roles in society which has led to less educated individuals especially among minorities. Less education in urban areas tends to lead to negative influences on children growing up in this situation. Children who have a parent in prison are easily influenced by older children in their neighborhoods. They are then exposed to the life of drugs and violent crime that can lead them to join gangs and follow the same path as those adults in their neighborhood who are incarcerated.
With violent crime on the rise in the late 20th century coupled with the war on drugs violations, penal population growth sent shockwaves through the most fragile families and neighborhoods that were least equipped to deal with the problem (Ayers, 2005). Since the majority of people in the prison population are minorities and lower class individuals, the people they leave behind have to deal with extraordinary circumstances. This burden has left families broken and children are the victims of single-parent homes which increases the percentage of these children going to jail earlier than most. With the majority of the prison population being men, "women are left in free society to raise families and contend with ex-prisoners returning home after release."(Ayers, 2005)
Children raised in single-parent homes are less supervised which leads to less emphasis on education and self-determination. The result of this situation is that society is damaged and has to take on the financial burden of children growing up in crime ridden neighborhoods and going to prison. When a family member is arrested, the family loses not only that person's income, but also acquire additional expenses involved in keeping contact with the incarcerated family member (Coker, 2003). Mothers then have to leave the home and children behind to take on more jobs in order to provide the basic needs for the family. As a result, the children are left behind to fend for themselves and get involved with the wrong people who will guide them down the path that their incarcerated family member went down.
In conclusion, there is a disparity in the number of African Americans in prison compared to the number of whites. This disparity leads to unstable communities and family lives, which in turn leads to a growing number of black people in prisons.

Ayers, Ian and Joel Waldfogel. 2005. A Market Test for Race Discrimination in Bail Setting, Stanford Law Review, 46, 987.
Coker, Donna. 2003. “Foreword: Addressing the Real World of Racial Injustice in the Criminal Justice System.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 93, 827-879.
Bobo, Lawrence D., Victor Thompson. 2006. “Unfair By Design: The War on Drugs, Race, and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Justice System.” Social Research, 73, 445-472.
Pettit, Becky, Bruce Western. 2004. “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration.” American Sociological Review, 69, 151 169.
United States. Dept. of Justice. 2008. Bureau of Justice Statistics: Prison Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Justice.

This paper takes a detailed look at the increasing number of black people in prison and tries to decide there are more blacks in prison than there are whites or Hispanics.
It does not argue that blacks are in prison because of their race. But tries to relate it to the fact that when a large portion of a community is incarcerated that it has a ripple effect in every aspect of society. It is for this reason that there are more African Americans in prison than any other race.

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