Racial disparity on incarcerated people declined 40% since 2000

Racial disparity on incarcerated people declined 40% since 2000

While racial disparity in America’s prisons remains high, the gap is narrowing

A new report, Justice Systems Disparities: Black-White National Imprisonment Trends,  published by the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), reveals that while Black adults are still imprisoned at a significantly higher rate than white adults, the racial disparity both in state imprisonment and in arrest rates has fallen between 2000 and 2020. 

In 2000, Black adults were imprisoned at 8.2 times the rate of white adults. This figure fell 40% to 4.9 times in 2020. The research concludes that the remaining disparity is the result of racial differences in offending rates and longer prison time served by Black adults convicted of violent crimes. As such, the report indicated that racial imprisonment disparities will persist without a decrease in both the disparity in violent offending rates and the disparity in prison time served, in addition to the reduced influence of criminal history in sentencing decisions. 

In 2000, Black adults were imprisoned at 8.2 times the rate of white adults.

The report, written by Georgia State Professors William J. Sabol and Thaddeus L. Johnson, credits half of this decrease to a reduction in the number of Black individuals incarcerated – specifically a 75% drop in the disparity of drug imprisonment – and the other half to growth in the Black adult resident population in the United States. 

In addition to imprisonment rates, the racial disparity in arrest rates fell steadily between 2000 and 2020, and was eliminated entirely in the case of non-fatal violent crimes by 2019. The arrest disparities still found in the case of property and drug crimes were found to account for the majority of the remaining disparity in prison admissions. In turn, the disparity in admission rates accounted for the majority of the gap in general imprisonment rates. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 15% decrease in the population of state prisons, this drop did not impact the rate of racial imprisonment disparity in 2020. Professor William J. Sabol said that the greatest period of change occurred in the first five years of the data, from 2000 to 2005, during which half of the decrease in racial disparity occurred. 

While the disparity in general decreased for all crimes, racial disparity in the length of stay in prison increased. In 2020, Black adults served an average 0.7 years longer than White adults, whereas in 2000 Black adults served an average of 0.2 years longer. 

Assistant Professor Thaddeus L. Johnson said that while the trends the data shows are promising, a lot of work still needs to be done “to move our nation toward a justice system worthy of widespread trust.” 

The CCJ will release additional reports documenting the rate of disparities in Hispanic and female correctional populations. 


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