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People of Color vs. White Americans and Incarceration


It is information that may be surprising to some and not a shock to others — Black and LatinX Americans are more likely to be incarcerated compared to white Americans. The specific statistics surrounding this data were recently released in a report by The Sentencing Project.

What is The Sentencing Project?

The Sentencing Project is a nonprofit organization with leaders looking to reform mass incarceration. The group focuses on giving a voice to those who may have been treated unfairly or given an extreme punishment because of, in their opinion, the color of their skin.

The Color of Justice Report

In October 2021, Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., released her findings on the incarceration rate for white, Black, and Latinx Americans and her opinion about this disparity.

“Truly meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system cannot be accomplished without acknowledgment of its racist underpinnings,” Dr. Nellis wrote. “Immediate and focused attention on the causes and consequences of racial disparities is required in order to eliminate them. True progress towards a racially just system requires an understanding of the variation in racial and ethnic inequities in imprisonment across states and the policies and day-to-day practices that drive these inequities.”

Additionally, in the report, Dr. Nellis noted five key findings highlighting the “staggering disproportionalities” of individuals incarcerated.

  1. Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate of nearly five times more compared to white Americans.
  2. One in every 81 Black American adults is currently incarcerated in state prison.
  3. More than half the prison population is comprised of Black Americans in 12 states.
  4. Seven states have a Black/white disparity larger than 9:1.
  5. LatinX Americans are imprisoned at a rate of 1.3 times more compared to white Americans.

Additional Reports

Dr. Nellis’ report is not the first to highlight the differences between people of color and white Americans being incarcerated. In a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) report focusing on racial bias in the criminal justice system it was noted, “87% of Black adults say the U.S. criminal justice system is more unjust towards Black people; 61% of white adults agree.”

Additionally, a Washington Post article (initially posted in 2018 but updated two years later) collected several reports citing the differences in arrest and incarceration rates of Black Americans compared to white Americans.

Boston University Law Review

A Boston University Law Review report found that blacks were more than twice as likely compared to white Americans to be arrested for misdemeanor crimes such as drug possession, vandalism, and disorderly conduct.

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area

A California study by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area found that Black and LatinX drivers were more likely to be jailed for failure to pay fines for moving violations compared to white drivers. Additionally, the study cited that Black drivers were 16 times more likely to be incarcerated for failure to pay other traffic fines.

ACLU of New Jersey

A 2015 study from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Jersey reported that Black Americans were anywhere from 2.6 to 9.6 times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans for misdemeanor offenses.

National ACLU

A national ACLU report in 2020 found that Black Americans were 3.5 times more likely to be jailed for marijuana offenses than white Americans. This, despite many states having laws regarding marijuana reform.

What Can Be Done to Change This Disparity?

Dr. Nellis recommended three key actions to change this disparity between Black and LatinX Americans being incarcerated more.

  • “Eliminating mandatory sentences for all crimes;
  • Require prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statutes; and,
  • Decriminalize low-level drug offenses.”

How HDR Law Can Help

No one should be treated unfairly because of the color of their skin. The civil rights attorneys at HDR Law understand that and have helped countless clients fight back against this injustice. Our experienced team wants to help you — contact us so we can evaluate your case today.