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Race gap in prisons is narrowing, but it's still too wide

The nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice recently released a report on the race gap in American prisons. The race gap is the degree to which minorities are incarcerated at a rate beyond their proportion in society. For example, even though there is no evidence that African-Americans are more prone to drug crimes than whites, in 2000 they were 15 times as likely to be convicted of state-level drug crimes.

The good news is that the race gap seems to be shrinking. For example, using 2016 data, the latest available, the report found that African-Americans were only five times as likely as whites to be in state prisons for drug crimes. African-Americans account for only about 12% of the U.S. population.

The Council reports that the race gap has narrowed substantially, not only in state prisons but also in local jails and among those on probation or parole. The gap narrowed the most in relation to drug crimes.

The race gap has long been apparent, with African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans facing arrest, charging and conviction at substantially greater rates than whites, and also being sentenced to longer terms for the same crimes.

Indeed, the report found that the sentences African-Americans received were longer across all crime types. This partially offset the benefits of a decreasing race gap in arrests and convictions by leaving African-Americans in prison for longer than their white peers.

Falling crime rates are playing a key role in shrinking the race gap

Crime rates have been falling nationwide since the early 1990s. Between 2000 and 2016, the black male imprisonment rate dropped by 30%, largely due to a decrease in drug crimes overall. Nevertheless, by 2016, there were still six African-American men in state prisons for every white man.

The race gap also fell for women. In 2000, African-American women were imprisoned at six times' the rate of white women, but that fell to only twice the rate by 2016. This appeared to be due to decreased drug convictions among black women, along with an increase in violent, property and drug crimes among white women.

Over the last several decades, researchers have identified systemic racial bias as the reason for the race gap in the justice system. This includes bias by police, prosecutors, juries and judges, along with race-based differences in crimes and harsh, mandatory minimum sentences that were passed during the 1980s and 1990s.

Since there is no evidence to suggest that minorities are more prone to crime than whites, the race gap is extremely troubling. We need to continue to monitor the situation until the percentage of minorities in prison is much closer to their percentage in society.

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