Sentencing Study Sees Race Disparity


Nearly one in three African American men in their 20s is in jail, prison, on probation or parole--a sharp increase over the approximately 25% of five years ago, a study concluded Wednesday.

The Sentencing Project, an organization critical of stiffer sentencing policies and the “war on drugs,” also found that African American women in their 20s showed the greatest jump of all demographic groups under criminal justice supervision--up 78% from 1989 to 1994.

African Americans and Latinos were found to constitute nearly 90% of offenders sentenced to state prison for drug possession.


“Public policies ostensibly designed to control crime and drug abuse have in many respects contributed to the growing racial disparity in the criminal justice system, while having little impact on the problems they were aimed to address,” the study said.

“If one in three young white men were under criminal justice supervision, the nation would declare a national emergency,” said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project and co-author of the study. “The devastating impact of these policies demands no less a national response because it primarily affects the African American community.”

The reaction of the Clinton Administration to the findings was mixed, with Lee P. Brown, director of White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, hailing the study’s conclusion about young black males and its recommendation for expanded drug treatment and prevention, rather than focusing largely on law enforcement, as “exactly right.”

The Justice Department, however, questioned the report’s suggestion “that drug enforcement policies are the most important factor in the rise in minority criminal justice populations.”

The department said the report’s conclusions “are a troubling reflection of the terrible impact of crime on our minority communities.” Social and economic factors, including poverty, family breakdown and poor educational and economic opportunities, contribute to the situation, the department added.

The report, written before a jury’s acquittal Tuesday of O.J. Simpson, said:


“Regardless of where one stands on his guilt or innocence, what is clear is that a wealthy and famous African American was able to assemble a very formidable defense. This is contrasted with the typical scene in almost every courthouse in cities across the country, where young African American and Hispanic males are daily processed through the justice system with very limited resources devoted to their cases.”

Factors contributing to the increase in young black males and females becoming involved in the criminal justice system include “the continuing disproportionate impact of the ‘war on drugs’ on minority populations, the new wave of ‘get tough’ sentencing policies . . . [and] the continuing difficult circumstances of life for many young people living in low-income urban areas in particular,” the report said.

In estimating that 827,440 black males from ages 20 to 29, or 32.2% of that population, are under criminal justice control on any given day in 1995, the study calculated the current total on the basis of the annual rate of increase for criminal justice populations from 1989 to 1994.

The report estimated that the criminal justice system spent about $6 billion a year supervising black males in their 20s.

The study, citing difficulties in obtaining accurate data on Latinos, said it is not certain “of the extent by which this population increased within the criminal justice system.” Imprisonment statistics for Latinos “indicate that the proportion of Hispanic inmates in state and federal prisons has doubled since 1980.”

The 78% jump in black women in their 20s in jail, prison or on probation or parole for crimes reflected the “enormous increase in the numbers of black women” imprisoned for drug offenses, according to the study. In the five-year period ending in 1991, the number of black, non-Latino women in state prisons for drug offenses increased from 667 to 6,193.

“This 828% increase was nearly double the increase for black non-Hispanic males and more than triple the increase for white non-Hispanic females,” the report said. Citing “much research,” the study said that with the exception of drug law enforcement, “race plays a relatively minor role in sentencing and incarceration.”

Former Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, who testified on racial disparities in the criminal justice system during the George Bush Administration, said Wednesday that “there’s no statistical evidence of racism in the criminal justice system. The data I have seen shows that if a black and a white commit a crime, they are just as likely to be convicted and ultimately incarcerated.”

The Sentencing Project report cited “increasing evidence that the set of policies and practices contained within the phrase ‘war on drugs’ has been an unmitigated disaster for young blacks and other minorities.”

The study faulted the media for oversimplifying the “evidence of young black men engaging in murder and mayhem.”

For 1993, African American males and females constituted 45.7% of all arrests for violent crime. “While clearly disturbing and very disproportionate to the overall percentage of blacks in the population, it is nonetheless clear that the majority of arrestees for violent offenses are white,” the study said.

“The proportion of overall violent crime attributed to African Americans has not changed appreciably over time, but has fluctuated with a narrow range of 44%-47% of all violent crime for the past 20 years,” the report said.

“What has changed in recent years is the age composition of those males engaged in violent crime, particularly with a substantial and disturbing increase in the murder rate of young black men since the mid-1980s.”

The Sentencing Project urged policies that would begin to “reverse the dramatic trends documented in the study without endangering public safety.”

These policies would include shifting anti-drug spending priorities to emphasize prevention and treatment rather than law enforcement by using drug courts and offering treatment in prisons; creating more sentencing options for nonviolent drug and property offenders; and eliminating mandatory sentencing and other sentencing policies that the study said have had a disproportionate impact on women and minorities.