US has the largest incarceration rate of any country with 1 in 100 being in prison or incarceration.

In 2016, the Prison Policy Initiative estimated that in the United States that about 2,298,300 people were incarcerated out of a population of 323.1 million. This means that 0.71% of the population was behind bars. Of those who were incarcerated, about 1,351,000 people were in state prison, 646,000 in local jails, 211,000 in federal prisons, 34,000 in youth correctional facilities, 33,000 in immigration detention camps, 14,000 in territorial prisons, 5,500 in civil commitment, 2,400 in Indian country jails, and 1,400 in United States military prisons.

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In 2010 the USA's national incarceration rates for the three most common ethnic groups were 380/100,000 White, 966/100,000 Latino, and 2,207/100,000 Black; in percentages rounded to 1/10 of percent, that'd be 0.4% of Whites, 1% of Latinos, and 2.2% of Blacks were incarcerated.

Are minorities disproportionately sentenced to harsher sentences than whites in cases involving non-violent crimes?

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    I haven’t downvotes yet, possibly because it’s been downvoted enough, but there doesn’t seem to be a connection between the first two paragraphs and the question in the final paragraph.
    – Golden Cuy
    Oct 24, 2017 at 3:32
  • @AndrewGrimm, I've added a bridge paragraph comparing the USA's various per capita ethnic incarceration rates. It doesn't address non-violent crimes as such however.
    – agc
    Oct 24, 2017 at 6:33
  • @JamesK I've voted to close this question because it isn't about the policy, but the facts behind the policy. There could be a question in there that looks for what contributes to the higher incarceration rates. The current points are: US Imprisons a lot of people, US imprisons minorities at a higher rate than the majority, so does the US imprison minorities for longer than the majority? Oct 24, 2017 at 14:53
  • There is minimal research involved in "are minorities given longer sentences than whites for non-violent crimes?" Googling that phrase alone gets returns from the ACLU and the sentencing project. The deeper question would be looking to establish the multiple factors that contribute to the statistical disparity. Oct 24, 2017 at 14:57
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    Another approach to an answer would be to address how relevant the above incarceration numbers are to sentencing. For example, it might be that groups A and B are sentenced harshly in equal proportions, but that group A has more money to pay for lawyers, appeals, and bail, and thus spends less time incarcerated.
    – agc
    Jan 4, 2018 at 6:14

4 Answers 4



This topic is quite delicate and politically contentious, but there seems to be some sort of consensus in the direction of "Yes, minorities are not treated in an equal and just manner by the US Judicial System".

According to the good people at the ACLU:

There are significant racial disparities in sentencing decisions in the United States. Sentences imposed on Black males in the federal system are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. Black and Latino offenders sentenced in state and federal courts face significantly greater odds of incarceration than similarly situated white offenders and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts in some jurisdictions. Black male federal defendants receive longer sentences than whites arrested for the same offenses and with comparable criminal histories. Research has also shown that race plays a significant role in the determination of which homicide cases result in death sentences.

According to a literature review on the topic:

Racial disparities in criminal justice contacts and legitimacy are potentially mutually reinforcing. Specifically, racial disparities in the CJS (with particular emphasis on differential treatment) may directly affect individual perceptions of legitimacy. The model articulated in the article is multidirectional and mutually reinforcing, so that the effects of legitimacy, racial disparities, and antisocial behavior have feedback effects. This argument could be extended to link social structural differences in criminal justice experiences to individual, psychological processes

Because race and the effect of race on justice is still seen as a Political Issue in the US (and in many other places around the world), there are many different viewpoints taken on the issue. The above viewpoints seem to be well-researched and well-reasoned, so I have selected them.

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    My limited experience with the CJS seems to indicate that an appearance of contrition and a willingness to admit fault/take responsibility for past wrongdoing are more predictive of the harshness of the sentence than anything else. Is there a study that looks at this aspect independent of race?
    – MAA
    Jan 9, 2018 at 19:21
  • @MAA Unfortunately I am just a layman with nothing more than a personal interest in the CJS. Perhaps someone better acquainted with the workings of the CJS might answer.
    – Dent7777
    Jan 9, 2018 at 21:00
  • I'm curious as to how much of this is direct racism - more likely to consider someone harshly because of race or ethnicity, more likely to attribute motives or character traits that hurt in trial or sentencing, ....etc., and how much is a more indirect result of institutional racism - more likely to be worse off, economically, so less likely to have a competent, vigorous, robust defense attorney. Jun 6, 2019 at 20:45
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    @PoloHoleSet Both, I'm sure, especially since they can feed off each other. But a well-designed scientific study has to account for those other differences (like economic disparity) when analyzing their data for conclusions about differences by race.
    – BradC
    Jun 6, 2019 at 21:31
  • @BradC I know there are a few studies out there that does exactly that for drug. I just found one ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5614457 which is an interesting read. tl.dr: Even taking education & situation as parameters, blacks are caught less often but gets harsher sentences for similar drug possession/use. Jun 7, 2019 at 9:03

The Iowa Supreme Court hired a professor from the University of Northern Iowa to study sentencing to see if there was a dependence on race/ethnicity. The only dependence he found was for aggravated misdemeanors.

Two friends (now retired) looked at the prison data one for the Board of Parole and the other for Department of Corrections and I independently did the same. I figured out that the aggravated misdemeanors were because of enhanced penalties for multiple charges for driving while barred. I talked to police officers and sheriffs deputies and agreed that was the cause. They know who is barred and if they see them driving they arrest them.

Someone who lives in a rural area has to drive to work, get groceries and take their children to school activities. For them the penalty is Draconian and the legislators don't seem to care.

To understand why Iowa has such a large racial disparity you have to look at the felony pretrial population. You have to look a jail booking data and jail daily population data so you can compare the pre-sentening and post-sentencing racial disparities. It tuns out they are the same the large disparity existed before sentencing. The problem was not caused by sentencing policy.

The original question was related to sentencing policy and race and my answer is that in Iowa the racial disparity existed before sentencing. I am new so I am not familiar with rules so I don't think should take up an unasked question.

The older studies were distributed as attachments to emails. Putting reports on the web is a relatively recent practice. Sorry but the links to the studies are not available.

Criminal case processing is initiated by a report of a crime. Not all crimes are reported so you have to use victimization surveys to determine the gender age and race/ethnicity of victims. It is axiomatic that nobody wants to be a crime victim.

It turns out that young Black females are more likely to be violent crime victims than young White and Hispanic females. Note that I am comparing females to females. There are also disparities for young Black and Hispanic males but interpretation is more complex. So an age, gender and race/ethnicity disparity for victims existed at the start of criminal case processing.

Not all reports of crimes result in an arrest and the vast majority of the data on arrestees is from large jails in urban counties and many of them do not report the ethnicity so I think the best data sources are the victimization surveys.

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    Welcome to Politics.SE. Thanks for that informative answer. Please edit your answer to add links to the studies you mention? Jun 7, 2019 at 1:17

I work with CJS data from Iowa and Iowa has a very large racial disparity (primarily because of drug and violent offenses). The question was about nonviolent sentencing disparities and the only such sentence I noticed in the prison data is for multiple violations of driving while barred. In Iowa there are more than 50 ways to lose your drivers license and only a few have anything to do with driving.

Because a high percentage of drug offenders are known or suspected gang members, a weapon was involved and/or they had a history of violent offenses, I do not consider drug offenders to be non-violent.

I get the data from the Iowa Department of Corrections. Unfortunately their budget had been slashed and they will not be able to provide data with their present staff. They publish Quick Facts each quarter and an annual report. Subsets of the population snapshots are on the web, but I don't have the link handy. The Iowa Board of Parole annual report contains a lot of useful data as does the annual prison population forecast published by Criminal Juvenile Justice Planning.

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    According to this paper from 2007, Iowa has the highest ratio (among US states) of black-to-white incarceration with a high of 13.6-to-1.
    – JJJ
    Jun 6, 2019 at 20:25
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    Does Iowa have a "very large racial disparity" or is there only a disparity for DUIs? I'm having a hard time parsing this answer.
    – divibisan
    Jun 6, 2019 at 20:31
  • Thanks for clarifying. Is this confidential data, or can you link to it and/or cite it directly?
    – divibisan
    Jun 6, 2019 at 22:11

Michele Alexander, a legal scholar and a covil rights litigator, tackled this question in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colour-Blindness. She found the answer to be a resounding yes.

She claims that the War on Drugs is a tool to enforce traditional and new modes of discrimination. This has led to the highest rates of incarceration in the world, but also has disproportionately affected black americans. She also points out that if current trends were to continue then the USA will end up jailing one third of its black male population. Thos by any measure, is unjust. Andbone can see why she calls this 'the New Jim Crow'.

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