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The Ripple Effects of Disproportionate Minority Incarceration
By Robert Winters, JD, Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Purdue Global University
Published: 02/15/2016

Metalic water The disparity in the incarceration of minorities in the U.S. correctional system are well-known. Other countries do face similar distortions in minority incarceration rates: in New Zealand, for example, Maoris represented 15.4 percent of the general population but 51.3 percent of the prison population in 2012, while in Canada Black inmates were 9.3 percent of the prison population but only 2.9 percent of the general population. However, the sheer size of the U.S. prison population means this disconnect affects a substantial swathe of Americans. What is often not fully appreciated, however, is how the ripple effects of incarceration impact minority communities.

Minorities overall represent nearly two-thirds of incarcerated offenders. African-Americans were 40 percent of the prison population but 13 percent of the general population in 2010; for Hispanics the rates were 19 percent and 16 percent respectively, compared to 39 percent and 64 percent respectively for whites. Fully one-third of African-American males born in 2001 will go to prison at some point, as will 1 in 6 Hispanic males, compared to 1 in 17 white males. Among women the rates are 1 in 18 for African-Americans, 1 in 45 for Hispanics, and 1 in 111 for whites. Sentences are also longer; U.S. Sentencing Commission data for 2007 to 2011 shows that sentences for African-American males were 19.5 percent longer than those for white males.

These rates of incarceration are fed by similarly disproportionate treatment earlier in the criminal justice process. Search rates for traffic stops, for example, are 7 percent for Hispanics, 6 percent for African-Americans, and 2 percent for whites. About 70 percent of school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement involve minority students, and minorities are represented in the juvenile justice system at about twice their share of the general population.

Possibly the only surprise in this regard is in the geographic distribution of minority incarceration rates. For 2010, states in the Southeast had low rates for African-Americans: Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina incarcerated 1,999 or fewer African-Americans per 100,000 in the population, and Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida were at 2,000 to 2,999 per 100,000. The only state incarcerating African-Americans at 5,000 or more per 100,000 was West Virginia, and only two—Wisconsin and South Dakota—did so at 4,000 to 4,999 per 100,000. A dozen states fell in the 3,000 to 3,999 range: Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, California, and Oregon.

The reasons for this over-representation are many and complex. While these reasons have been extensively debated and explored, what has received less attention is the follow-on effects of incarceration. A significant one in many states is the loss of the right to vote. Voting rights for convicted felons are controlled by state law, so the problem is not universal, but at present nearly 6 million African-Americans have lost the right to vote in this way. Nationwide this translates to about 1 in 13 voting-age African-Americans, and in states such as Virginia, Florida, and Kentucky the rate is over 1 in 5. Given that criminal justice policy is a political issue, this diminishes the ability of minorities to accomplish change.

A major impact—and one that can contribute to recidivism—is the negative effect incarceration can have on employment prospects. For example, some states bar those with certain felony convictions from working in such fields as child care, home health care, or nursing. As it happens, these are occupational fields in which minority women tend to be over-represented. A study published in 2011 by Christopher Lyons and Becky Pettit revealed that while pre-incarceration wage growth rates showed no racial divergence, following release from prison African-American men experienced wage growth 21 percent slower than white men. Getting a job at all can become problematic since questions about prior felony convictions are common on employment applications, and many employers will be hesitant to hire a former inmate. In general an employer must demonstrate that the conviction has a direct impact on some aspect of job performance—one would understandably not want to hire someone convicted of check fraud for a bookkeeping position, for example—but rarely is the conviction overtly stated as the reason someone does not get the job; the employer merely hires someone else.

The significant number of minority men incarcerated translates to family issues that contribute to future criminal activity as well as economic degradation. Single mothers left to care for children are far more likely to fall into poverty absent the wages of the incarcerated father, which can derail the education (and therefore future economic prospects) of those children. Additionally, children in such families tend to experience much higher rates of behavioral and mental health problems that can easily translate to early encounters with the criminal justice system. For the unmarried offender, it is even likely that the stigma of prison time will reduce prospects for future marriage.

The community as a whole tends to suffer for some of the same reasons. There are institutions such as schools, families, and labor markets that create norms that discourage the average person from committing a crime. However, it has been demonstrated that the loss of a significant portion of the population—particularly the male population—weakens these institutions. Inner-city neighborhoods where 10 percent or more of the men are incarcerated (and far more have been incarcerated at some point) have suffered a breakdown in these norms that produces well-known results such as high dropout rates among secondary school students, extensive gang activity, and increased participation in the drug trade—all of which merely perpetuates an environment of widespread criminal activity and resultant incarceration.

There has been a fairly significant movement of late toward sentencing reform; the removal of mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses was an important one. It is to be hoped that the current emphasis on improving police-community relations will lead to a more equitable pattern of arrests and thus a more equitable pattern of conviction and sentencing. But there also needs to be further recognition of the second-order results of incarceration and the disproportionate impact of those results on minority communities.

Corrections.com author, Robert Winters, holds a Juris Doctorate degree and is a Professor with Kaplan University. He is also a member of the National Criminal Justice Association and serves as a Western Regional Representative, a member of the National Advisory Board and their National Elections Committee.

Other articles by Winters


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