Image: Grant Durr/Unsplash
Racial disparities in state imprisonment rates dropped significantly during the first two decades of the 21st century.
That’s one of the main findings from a report published by one of us in late 2022, along with Georgia State University colleague William Sabol, for the Council on Criminal Justice, nonpartisan think tank.
But that headline decline tells only half the story. The narrowing is significant – down some 40% in the 20 years to 2020 – but Black adults were still being imprisoned at 4.9 times the rate of white adults in 2020, compared with 8.2 times at the turn of the century.
Of equal concern to us, as Black Americans and scholars of criminal justice, is where the largest gaps exist in imprisonment rates once you break down the data. With a steep decline in the drug imprisonment gap between Black and white Americans – from 15 to 1 in 2000 to just under 4 to 1 in 2019 – the biggest racial disparity now exists among people incarcerated for violent felony offenses. These violent offenses cover a range of criminal behavior from rape to robbery to murder.
Imprisonment racial disparity by offense, 2000-2019
Figures are based on population base (per 100,000 U.S. adults). A rate of 1 would indicate racial parity in incarceration rate between Black and white offenders.
Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: Council on Criminal Justice Get the data Created with Datawrapper
The Council on Criminal Justice report shows that states incarcerated Black adults for violent offenses at a rate over six times that of white adults by 2019, the most recent year for which offense-specific data is available.
Both victims and offenders
It has long been accepted that the racial disparity in incarceration rates for drug offenses is the result of bias in the system. Black people do not use or traffic drugs more than their white counterparts. Rather, Black communities have borne the brunt of drug imprisonment because of discriminatory enforcement.
But this does not seem to be the case when it comes to felony violence. There is evidence to suggest that the relatively higher Black incarceration rates for violent crimes, especially homicides, are due to an overrepresentation of violent offenders and victims in Black communities.
The homicide rate for Black Americans (29.3 per 100,000) was about seven and a half times higher than the white homicide rate (3.9 per 100,000) in 2020. Black Americans were also about twice as likely to report receiving medical treatment for physical injuries sustained from an assault.
Most acts of violence involve a victim and offender of the same race. According to the most recent data available, despite accounting for roughly 14% of the U.S. population, Black Americans comprise over half of the known homicide offenders and more than a third of rape, robbery and aggravated assault offenders identified by victims.
Structural racism and violent crime
The evidence suggests that Black Americans both commit and suffer the bulk of serious violent crimes.
Of course, this should not be misconstrued as suggesting Black people are inherently more violent. Rather, it demonstrates the structural and economic barriers that Black Americans continue to face.
Striking racial gaps, rooted in a legacy of structural racism, have left generations of Black people with disproportionately less wealth and education, lower access to health care, less stable housing and differential exposure to environmental harms like air pollution. Such factors contribute to concentrated poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods and other community conditions tied to violent offending.
The recent rise in violent crime has affected all demographics, but especially Black Americans. Data from the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 saw an average of 10 more Black lives lost each day to homicide than the year before. During this same period, the average number of white homicide victims increased by nearly three per day.
This increase was not evenly distributed across Black communities. Most Black homicide victims were young males. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that Black men ages 15 to 34 represented nearly a third of all U.S. homicide deaths in 2021 and over a quarter since 2000.