Why Are There More Blacks and Hispanics in Prison?

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Answered by: Adeeba, An Expert in the The Judicial System Category
In America, the number of people in prison far exceeds the inmate populations of any other countries. A closer look at the American prison system reveals that racial disparities exist, in that, although Caucasians represent the majority, 72 percent, of the population, their numbers in the prison system are under-represented, as opposed to Blacks and Hispanics who are are over-represented, compared to their numbers in society.

For example, Caucasians make up 59% of those behind bars in federal prisons, while Black individuals, who represent 12 percent of the United States' population, comprise 37 percent of those in federal lock up. Hispanics, representing 16 percent of the population, make up 35 percent of those incarcerated.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) put it this way, “The unequal treatment of minorities in our criminal justice system manifests itself in a mushrooming prison population that is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic,” reads the Executive Summary of the group's 2000 report entitled, “Justice on Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System.” It goes on to declare, “The treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system is the most profound civil rights crisis facing America in the new century.”

That was then, yet it appears little has improved in the “now,” more than 10 years later. Last year, Law Professor Michelle Alexander made headlines with her statement that more Blacks reside “in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began. ” Author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Her view reflects a similar outlook held by critics who call the system “modern day slavery.” Prison reform advocates typically point to three culprits for causing racial disparities: the War on Drugs, inequities in drug sentencing and racial profiling.

War on Drugs. President Richard Nixon first used the phrase “War on Drugs,” in 1971 to describe the U.S. government's strategy for battling use and distribution of illegal drugs. According to The Sentencing Project (TSP), decades of pursuit of this war resulted in “three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses [being] people of color. ”

Drug Sentencing Inequities. In February 2012, Marc Mauer, TSP Executive Director, testified before the U.S. Sentencing Commission and praised that body's assistance in rallying for reform of crack sentencing practices. This, after decades of courts handing out stiffer sentences for drug offenses involving crack cocaine, and lighter sentences in powder cocaine cases.

Racial Profiling. The LCCR report also noted the role of racial profiling in contributing to the disproportionate number of incarcerations. “The majority of crimes are not committed by minorities, and most minorities are not criminals . . . More minority arrests and convictions perpetuate the belief that minorities commit more crimes, which in turn leads to racial profiling . . . ”

Stereotypes perpetuated by the criminal justice system lead some to conclude racial disparities exist because Blacks and Hispanics are more violent. Those making the above arguments, however, would suggest that consideration of other factors must take place to ensure equity and balance in the debate.

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