In 1954, at the time of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, African Americans constituted about 30% of persons admitted to state and federal prisons. That figure should have been disturbing since it was substantially higher than the black share of the national population. But that proportion has now increased; still more dramatically, to the point where blacks represent half of all prison admissions. This development would seem to be rather odd considering the changes that have taken place in American society over the past half-century. (Mauer & Huling, 1995) According to 2005 Census Bureau statistics, the male African-American population of the United States aged between 18 and 24 numbered 1,896,000. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 106,000 African Americans in this age group were in federal or state prisons at the end of 2005. If you add the numbers in local jail (measured in mid-2006), you arrive at a grand total of 193,000 incarcerated young Black males, or slightly over 10 percent. Everybody acknowledges that incarceration rates among young black males are much higher than among whites or Hispanics. An August 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis shows that 32 percent of black males born in 2001 can expect to spend time in prison over the course of their lifetime. That is up from 13.4 percent in 1974 and 29.4 percent in 1991. By contrast, 17.2 percent of Hispanics and 5.9 percent of whites born in 2001 are likely to end up in prison. (Brown, 2007) The Percent of African American males in the Penal System
Nationally, black Americans account for fewer than half of the arrests for violent crimes, but they account for just over half of the convictions, and approximately 60 percent of the prison admissions. (Stone, 1999) Thus, if African Americans exhibit higher rates of serious offending and/or have lengthier criminal histories than other groups, we could expect this to be reflected in the composition of the prison population. For property offenses, African Americans constituted 32% of arrests in 1996, disproportionate to their 13% share of the national population. In data explained by sociologists Robert Crutchfield, George Bridges, and Susan Pitchford found that while national level data seemed to show a high correlation between arrest rats and incarceration for African Americans the variation in this relationship at the state level was quite significant. In the northeast states, only 69% of racial disparity was explained by arrest, while in the north central states, fewer blacks were actually incarcerated than one would have predicated by just using arrest data. Overall, this suggests that a variety of factors, which include crime rates, law enforcement practices, and sentencing legislation, may play a role in the degree of racial disparity in incarceration. (Crutchfield, Bridges & Pitchford, 1994)
Race and Class Effects
As the trials of O.J. Simpson illustrated so clearly, discussions of race and the criminal justice system are often heavily overlaid with considerations of class as well. Racial disparities are related in part to the volume of crime committed by various groups, but they are also a function of differing forms of treatment that relate to the background and resources of the offender. Criminologist Delbert Elliott has conducted analyses of youthful offending and its relation to race and class. In longitudinal studies of data from the National Youth Survey he has found several intriguing patterns: • Self-reported rates of offending behavior by young males are high across all racial groups, with 42% of males reporting that they have engaged in some form of violent offending – aggravated assault, robbery, or rape – by the age of 27.
• Black males engage in serious violent offending at higher rates than white males, but not dramatically so. By age 27, 48% of black...