Racial Disparity In Prisons

The Sentencing Project analyses racial disparity in state prisons. The results may shock you.

Does justice have color? Yes, it’s white. As for incarceration, it seems to be predominantly Black. African-Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites. 1 in 10 Black men in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day.


This publication by The Sentencing Project contains the data on racial disparity in prisons for the past year. Here are some key findings.

  • In twelve states, more than half of the prison population is Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Maryland, whose prison population is 72% African American, tops the nation.
  • In eleven states, at least 1 in 20 adult Black males is in prison.
  • In Oklahoma, the state with the highest overall Black incarceration rate, 1 in 15 black males ages 18 and older is in prison.
  • States exhibit substantial variation in the range of racial disparity, from a Black/white ratio of 12.2:1 in New Jersey to 2.4:1 in Hawaii.
  • Latinos are imprisoned at a rate that is 1.4 times the rate of whites. Hispanic/white ethnic disparities are particularly high in states such as Massachusetts (4.3:1), Connecticut (3.9:1), Pennsylvania (3.3:1), and New York (3.1:1).


The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 35% of state prisoners are white, 38% are Black, and 21% are Hispanic. In twelve states more than half of the prison population is African-American. Though the reliability of data on ethnicity is not as strong as it is for race estimates, the Hispanic population in state prisons is as high as 61% in New Mexico and 42% in both Arizona and California. In an additional seven states, at least one in five inmates is Hispanic. While viewing percentages reveals a degree of disproportion for people of color when compared to the overall general population (where 62% are white, 13% are black, and 17% are Hispanic), viewing the composition of prison populations from this perspective only tells some of the story. In this report we present the rates of racial and ethnic disparity, which allow a portrayal of the overrepresentation of people of color in the prison system accounting for population in the general community.10) This shows odds of imprisonment for individuals in various racial and ethnic categories.


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