The nation’s criminal justice system is broken. People of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos, are unfairly targeted by the police and face harsher prison sentences than their white counterparts. Given the nation’s coming demographic shift, in which there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by 2044, the United States cannot afford for these trends to continue. Not only could the money spent on mass incarceration—$80 billion in 2010—be put to better use, but the consequences for people who become entangled in the criminal justice system are also lifelong, leading to barriers to employment and housing, among many other things.
The shocking deaths at the hands of police in New York City; Ferguson, Missouri; North Charleston, South Carolina; and Baltimore, to name a few, have awakened the nation to the criminal justice system’s disparate impact on people of color. Tensions have flared throughout the country as news stories about how people of color are targeted and mistreated have come to light. As Americans reflect on the devastating recent events and as momentum builds to reform the U.S. criminal justice system, it is important to take note of the many ways in which the current system disproportionately affects people of color and creates significant barriers to opportunity for people with criminal records. Consider the following eight facts:
- People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Despite being only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population, 40 percent of those who are incarcerated are black. Latinos represent 16 percent of the overall population but 19 percent of those who are incarcerated. On the other hand, whites make up 64 percent of the overall population but account for only 39 percent of those who are incarcerated.
- People of color are more likely to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Among black males born in 2001, one in three will go to prison at some point during their lifetimes; one in six Latino males will have the same fate. By contrast, only 1 out of every 17 white males is expected to go to prison. A similar pattern exists among women: 1 in 111 white women, 1 in 18 black women, and 1 in 45 Latina women will go to prison at some point. Furthermore, African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites.
- The so-called War on Drugs has disproportionately affected people of color. Despite using and selling drugs at rates similar to those of their white counterparts, African Americans and Latinos comprise 62 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses and 72 percent of those sentenced for federal drug trafficking offenses, which generally carry extreme mandatory minimum sentences.
- People of color, particularly black males, face longer sentences than their white non-Hispanic counterparts for similar crimes. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, between 2007 and 2011, sentences for black males were 19.5 percent longer than those for whites. Furthermore, black men were 25 percent less likely to receive sentences below the sentencing guidelines for the crime of which they were convicted.
- During traffic stops, people of color are more likely to be searched than their white counterparts. National survey data show that blacks and Latinos are three times more likely to be searched than whites. Blacks are searched in 6 percent of traffic stops and Hispanics are searched in 7 percent of stops, whereas whites are searched only 2 percent of the time.
- Students of color continue to face harsher punishments at school than their white non-Hispanic counterparts. A 2010 study found that more than 70 percent of students who are “involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement” are black or Latino. Furthermore, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. During the 2011-12 school year, 16 percent of black K-12 students were suspended, compared with 7 percent of Latino students and 5 percentof white students.
- People of color are extremely overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. According to a 2014 report on racial discrimination in America, juveniles of color represented 67 percent of “juveniles committed to public facilities nationwide,” nearly twice their share of the juvenile population. Despite comprising only 15 percent of the juvenile population, black juveniles were arrested two times more often than their white counterparts.
- Voting restrictions on the formerly incarcerated have disenfranchised millions of voters, particularly African Americans. Today, approximately 5.9 million people are not able to vote due to felony convictions. While laws vary from state to state—with some allowing for restoration of voting rights—1 in 13 blacks nationwide are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one in five black adults are denied the right to vote.
These glaring disparities in the application of justice have real consequences for the nation as a whole. Mass incarceration is not sustainable, and evidence does not support the theory that harsh punishments effectively reduce crime or recidivism rates. Recent events have brought this issue to the forefront, and reform has garnered support along the ideological spectrum. It is time to take steps to reduce the disparate impact that the American criminal justice system has on people of color and institute reforms that apply justice fairly and equitably for all.
Jamal Hagler is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.