The study, headed by William J. Sabol, ex-director of the United States’ Bureau of Justice Statistics, and criminologist from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University stops short of analysing the motives for the decline in racial disparities.
The Council on Criminal Justice commissioned the study which found that between the years 2000 and 2016, the most recent year for which combined federal and state data was available, ethnic and racial disparities across the prison and probation population of the United States declined.
Although African Americans still account for the largest ethnic group in the United States justice system, the black-white disparity has significantly decreased in the last two decades.
The decline is evident across all major crime categories, with the most significant decrease observed in drug offences, where the imprisonment rate for African Americans has reduced from 15 times the rate of whites to just under five times the rate of whites in the last decade and a half.
Hispanic-white disparities followed a similar trend, with the most significant reduction occurring among the conditional-release population, which fell from 3.3 times the rate of whites in 2000 to 1.4 times the rate in 2014.
The pattern was especially evident in the number of African Americans arrested for drug crimes, which fell from a peak of 2,177 per 100,000 inhabitants in the year 2000 to 1,274 per 100,000 in 2016, a decrease of some 41%. It’s important to note that some states began making fewer arrests for marijuana possession in response to the growing pro-legalisation movement.
Racial disparity continues to be a pressing problem for the system, but the latest figures are a sign of significant progress in addressing the issue. In the last 40 years, black imprisonment rates have ranged from about six to eight times those of the white population.
Decreasing racial disparity was particularly notable among those held in prison. The number of incarcerated black adults fell by 10% between 2000 and 2016, dropping from 589,499 to 527,675. During this period, black-white disparity in prisons fell by 42%.
During the same period, the number of whites in state prisons increased by 18.6%, rising from 452,232 to 536,183.
The authors of the study found a similar decline, although to a lesser extent, in disparities among the federal penitentiary population. The black-white disparity fell from 8.4 to 1, to seven-to-one between 2001 and 2017. In the same period, the rate for the Hispanic population fell from 7.3 inmates for every white inmate, to 4.6 inmates for every white inmate.
The decline in the racial disparity between black and white women was even more pronounced than for the men. In the year 2000, there were six African American women for every white woman in the North American justice system. By 2016, the figure had reduced to just two African American women for every white woman behind bars.
In the same period, the number of black women in state prisons fell by half, while the number of white women increased from 25,000 to 60,000.
According to the study, the considerable decline in the black-white disparity among women results from a significant drop in the number of black women in prison for drug crimes, in conjunction with an increase in the number of white women imprisoned for drug-related and violent crimes.