Incarceration Rates By Race, Ethnicity, And Gender In The U.S.

White, Asian, and female Americans are far less likely to end up behind bars than men, Latinos, and African Americans.

The US prison system is the main source of punishment and rehabilitation for criminal offenses. The system incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, currently, there are over 2 million people in prisons, jails, and detention centers. This number represents 25% of all inmates in the world even though the US population makes up only 5% of the global population. Majority opinion holds that this system is broken and in need of repair. The downturn began in the early 70’s when President Nixon called for a “war on drugs”, measures in this war were to include drastic prison sentences for drug-related crimes. Today, the prisons are overcrowded and understaffed which has opened the way for private, for-profit centers.

Incarceration Rates By Group, and their Effects on American Society

The problems with the prison system only continue when one looks at the obvious racial and gender disparities. Nearly three-quarters of federal inmates, 71.4%, are either of African American or Latino descent. That’s 37.6% and 33.8% respectively. The problem with this is that these two groups collectively only make up 21.3% of the entire population. Native Americans represent 2% of the incarcerated population and only 1.1% of the population. Asians, however, make up 1.5% of the federal prison population and 4.8% of the national population. This pattern is seen with White Americans as well, they make up 25% of the federal prison population but are 63.7% of the US population. Even the sentencing differences among African Americans, Latinos, and Whites are striking with African American men sentenced to terms that are 20 to 50 times longer than white men for the same crime.

Women ending up in the prison system is much more unlikely. Only 6.7% of federal incarcerations are women despite the fact that they make up 50.8% of the US population. Although women may be less likely to be sentenced to jail time, those who do go face the same racial disparities as men. African American women are the most likely to be jailed followed by Latina women. Thirty percent of women in state and federal prisons are African American, and 16% are Latina.

These numbers have broader, far-reaching social implications. The effect on children is astounding. African American and Latino children are more likely to have a parent in jail or prison. When the father figure of a household is removed (which given the percentage of male inmates in federal prisons, 93.3%, is a likely scenario), a child is left in a single-parent household. This means one person is responsible for every aspect, including the financial aspects, of maintaining the home. As a result, the number of African American children living in poverty has increased since 1968.

When these men and women finish their prison terms and are reintegrated into society, their chances of finding employment are significantly decreased. A criminal record will, more times than not, deter a potential employer from offering an employment contract. The hindered ability to find gainful employment further obstructs the family and their personal progress. What this prison system promotes is the continued oppression of already oppressed minority groups.

Actions Being Taken To Drive Change

The problem of the US prison system has been identified and now there are many organizations and individuals working to change the current reality. Some suggestions that could help to reduce and maybe one day erase the racial disparities of incarcerated individuals include: cultural competence training for law enforcement, public action to oppose laws that might increase the number of minorities found in the system, and encouraging the use of Continuing Legal Education Hours for prosecutors. For those individuals who, despite policy level change and improved practices, still find themselves in prison, educational programs could be beneficial. Learning a new trade or business skill are things that can help to make the reintegration process easier, reduce the chances of becoming a repeat offender, and increase the chances of finding gainful employment.

Incarceration Rates In The U.S. By Race, Ethnicity, And Gender

Group % of Total Population % of Federal Incarcerated Population Actual/Expected Ratio
Non-Hispanic White 63.70% 25.00% 0.39
Hispanic or Latino 9.10% 33.80% 3.71
African American 12.20% 37.60% 3.08
Asian American 4.80% 1.50% 0.31
Native American 1.10% 2.00% 1.82
Male 49.20% 93.30% 1.9
Female 50.80% 6.70% 0.13

More in Society