Blacks and the Criminal Justice System Today, we begin a new month-long series, focused on the different aspects of the criminal justice system. More than 60 percent of those now in prison are racial and ethnic minorities. Farai Chideya explores these trends and more.
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Blacks and the Criminal Justice System

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Blacks and the Criminal Justice System

Blacks and the Criminal Justice System

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This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. One out of every three black boys born today can expect to spend time in a state or federal prison at some point in their life. That staggering statistic comes from The Sentencing Project , a non-profit focused on criminal justice policy. But those numbers are just a hint of America's incarceration crisis. This nation locks up more people, as a percentage of population and in raw numbers overall, than any other place in the world. Today, we launch a month-long series on criminal justice. Today, we break down the numbers, who's committing crimes, who gets caught and why and what are reformers doing to make sure the justice system is, in fact, just. In a few minutes, we'll hear from the Iowa governor, Chet Culver. He recently signed a law that tries to make sure new legislation doesn't increase racial disparities in his state's criminal justice system. But first, we'll talk to Ryan King, he's a policy analyst for The Sentencing Project. Hi, Ryan.

Mr. RYAN KING (Policy Analyst, The Sentencing Project): Hi, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So can you break down some of the numbers about incarceration by race ethnicity and gender?

Mr. KING: Sure, let's take a look first at the overall numbers. There's about 2.3 million Americans that are in prison or jail in the U.S. That comes out to about one in 133. But when you start looking at probation and parole on top of that, more than seven million Americans at this point. You're talking about one in 31 Americans that are under some type of correctional supervision. But to really understand criminal justice, you need to get into the issues of racial disparity. And 40 percent of those persons in prison are African-American. You mentioned earlier, one in three African-American males born today will spend some time in their life in prison or jail, which I think is a particularly stunning number. And when you look at young black males under correctional supervision, that's black males in their 20s, one in three right no are currently under correctional supervision and one in six black males in the entire U.S. has spent some time in their life in prison. So these are really stunning numbers. These aren't sort of people at the margins but really a significant portion of an entire population of this country.

CHIDEYA: Is this just because young black men commit more crime? Is this one of those things where, you know, it's not a disparity?

Mr. KING: It's very much a disparity and we have mountains and mountains of research on this. I think, particularly, you need to look at the war on drugs. It's been the biggest contributor to the rise in incarceration, going back to 1980 or so. We know that the war on drugs is defined by its discretion, and the fact of the matter is, African Americans were disproportionably arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses. Those numbers are not representative of their overall use. So 12 percent of the general population in the U.S. is African-American, about 12 percent of regular drug users, monthly drug users are African American. But about three times that rate are arrested, about four times that rate are incarcerated. We know that the primary means of drug sales are intra-racial so it tends to be African-American to African-American, white to white. So what's going on with these arrests and conviction numbers has a lot more to do with the decisions and discretion of where we choose to pursue the war on drugs than in who's using drugs and whose selling drugs.

CHIDEYA: Let's add socioeconomics into the mix, because in some cases there are drug sales, for example that are across race where you have people - you know, I used to live in New York City and folks would always talk about the folks driving in from New Jersey and then picking up their drugs in, you know, New York City and then driving back. And a lot of the dealers would be black and brown, a lot of the customers would be white. How does something like that affect these overall statistics?

Mr. KING: Well the fact is, that tends to be the proverbial real story that you hear. And I'm not arguing with the fact that there is interracial drug sales, but by and large we know that there tends to be primarily intra-racial drug sales. But here's another key fact in why I think we also see higher rates of arrest among African-Americans is that from really good ethnographic research that's been done suggests that African-American's drug markets tend to be more stranger-to-stranger and they tend to take place in public areas. I think this is really key. White drug markets tend to rely more upon referrals from friends or colleagues, co workers and they tend to take place in private, as does drug use.

So one of the very practical implications of this is that it's much more easy to detect and pursue the war on drugs in African-American communities. And in fact, some of the historical research, looking back at the war on drugs, particularly the crack cocaine market in the 1980s suggests that the very public nature of it, the fact that here in Washington, D.C., open-air drug markets were widely available and wildly visible within blocks of the U.S. capital really raised the issue to a national profile.

CHIDEYA: When you look at race in the criminal justice system, there's also the question of victim and offender. And I know that there are some statistics about how the - how much more likely the sentences are to be heavy for African Americans for example who murder whites, as opposed to African-Americans who murder other African-Americans. How else, you know, whether it's in the case of something like that, but how else does race kind of play into who gets sentenced for how long under what circumstances?

Mr. KING: Well, it's important to go all the way back to the very beginning. We're talking about arrest here. Where the war on drugs is pursued, where police tend to be in higher concentrations so there are going to be higher arrest rates. And our sentencing system functions very much on criminal history. It functions very much on habitual offender laws. And so if you are African-American, just by virtue of geographic segregation that is very commonplace in the U.S., you have a higher likelihood of having police contact, higher likelihood of being arrested, higher likelihood of that arrest leading to a booking, charge, conviction, sentence, etc. It goes on, and then the cumulative effect of just being African-American puts an individual at a disadvantage versus being white in the criminal justice system. And so when the sentencing system is based upon your criminal history, it's based upon all these different factors. It's very difficult to identify, well, it's the police, well, it's the courts, well, its corrections, that's where the racial disparity exists. It exists all along the way, in some cases very explicit ways, in some cases very subtle ways that disadvantage African-Americans. And the cumulative effect is what we see in the incarceration population.

CHIDEYA: There are plenty of black folks who will say, black folks need to get it together. You know, especially with black-on-black crime, we just need to get it together within our community. Other folks will point to the system. Other people will look at a combination. From your perspective, doing what you do at The Sentencing Project, what needs to happen now?

Mr. KING: Well, this is - we could make all the reforms that The Sentencing Project advocates tomorrow morning, and in many cases we still would have not addressed a lot of the underlying reasons that crime occurs. The criminal justice system doesn't exist in a vacuum. The fact that we see these incarceration numbers, these arrest numbers that we're discussing are reflection of failures, in my opinion, in terms of addressing poverty, economic opportunity, education, healthcare. In many of these communities where they have very high density incarceration, high density arrest rates, there are also all of these failures to provide social service to this community.

So many times you'll see members of African-American communities, they'll throw their arms and say enough's enough. Lock these people away, I don't want these people on my streets, and it's a public safety issue. And you have to be sympathetic to that, but you also need to take a step back and take a look at why crime occurs in certain places. Why is there drug selling in certain neighborhoods? Why are the police certain neighborhoods, and what failures have we have occurred all along the continuum that result in what we see in these incarceration numbers?

CHIDEYA: Finally, and briefly, give us an example of something that you've heard about that you think works.

Mr. KING: Well, I think, for instance, looking at addressing sentencing through racial ethnic impact statements, which the governor caller from Iowa is going to discuss next, has been critical. This conversation we're having about racial disparity should be something that we don't after the fact. We talk about crack cocaine, we shouldn't be talking about that 20 years alter. She should be talking about it before the fact. We can predict, we can forecast what these impacts are, so let's get these conversations up front in the legislature so that legislators, when they have an opportunity to address these things, can do it upfront before the law is passed.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ryan, thanks so much.

Mr. KING: My pleasure, thank you.

CHIDEYA: Ryan King as a policy analyst for The Sentencing Project, a non-profit criminal justice policy group, and he was at our headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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