Race and Ethnicity in Mass Incarceration

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Race and Ethnicity in Mass Incarceration

Race and Ethnicity in Mass Incarceration





The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. There are many factors contributing to this worrying trend, one of which could be the country’s high population. However, when compared to other countries per capita, the US still comes first. Other countries with a higher population, such as China, have a lower criminal incarceration rate than the US. Within the topic of mass incarceration, a critical point of focus is the higher rate of imprisonment for minority groups. The research question in this case is, does race and ethnicity play a role in the US’ criminal incarceration rates? The most effective way to answer this question is to examine statistics on mass incarceration and compare rates in different racial groups. Minority groups such as African-Americans are imprisoned at a rate five times higher than that of whites, and in some states, this rate can go as high as ten times (Jeffers, 2019). The criminal justice system should be unbiased and impartial, yet racial disparities in incarceration prove otherwise.

In this paper, I will argue that race and ethnicity play a significant role in incarceration rates within the US. Minority groups such as African-Americans and Hispanics have higher incarceration rates than the white majority, meaning that race plays a role in the criminal justice system. However, this is not to say that being a minority means that one is automatically sent to jail. Instead, some systemic and institutional practices increase the likelihood of minority individuals getting sent to prison. One point in favour of this argument is the structural disadvantages that minority groups face in terms of poverty, employment, education and others (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). Second, established policies and practices such as harsh drug laws, stop and frisk policies contribute to higher incarceration for minority groups. Another vital factor is implicit bias in the justice system against minority groups, where there are many negative perceptions regarding people of colour. These factors are the main reasons why the country has higher incarceration rates for minority groups.

Social and Political Context

Mass incarceration in the country is a serious social and political issue. Some of the major actors involved include political leaders such as local, state and federal representatives. On the social front, human rights and justice groups such as the Sentencing Project and the Innocence Project fight to create awareness and policy reform on mass incarceration. Most of the major players in criminal justice, social and political leaders agree that there is a problem with how the system handles minority groups. Multiple laws have been introduced in the US legislature to address racial bias in the criminal justice system. Most recently, these bills include the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 and the JUSTICE Act (Pettit & Sykes, 2015). Social actors have also made efforts to address racial disparities in criminal justice; for example, The Sentencing Project published a manual on the issue in 2016 titled, ‘Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Practitioners and Policymakers.’


Structural Disadvantages

One primary reason for racial disparities in mass incarceration is structural disadvantages. Minorities tend to be imprisoned at a higher rate due to disadvantages they face right from their communities. African-Americans and other minority groups are more likely to come from more impoverished neighbourhoods due to disproportionate investment in social resources (Gase et al., 2016). These structural disadvantages can be seen in education, healthcare, housing, poverty, employment and family differences. The Sentencing Project reports that about 60% of African-Americans live in impoverished, segregated neighbourhoods with high crime levels (Omori, 2017). Poverty is a major contributor to crime in these neighbourhoods as most people are poorly educated and unemployed. These structural disadvantages are intertwined, creating an environment that promotes crime, leading to imprisonment.

A possible rebuttal of the structural disadvantages argument is that the US system is based on meritocracy. Any person can get an education, work hard and improve their lives regardless of their background. Race and ethnicity do not block anyone from going to school, starting a business or getting a job. The majority of incarcerated individuals from minority groups chose a path of crime, and they must be punished for it. Although this point is a valid one, the fact remains that most of the time, the odds are stacked against some groups, making it almost impossible to fight against the system. For example, even if an individual from a poor, minority family and neighbourhood wanted to get an education, the schools in their communities are underfunded, and they cannot afford the costs of higher education. Getting a good job without a quality education is very difficult. This sequence of events explains how easily one could turn to crime due to hopelessness.

Policies and Practices

The policies and practices established within the criminal justice system also contribute to the racial disparities in mass incarceration. When these policies are executed with a bias towards one group of people, it affects them more. Discrimination can be seen right from the initial point of contact with law enforcement. A perfect example of this is the stop and frisk policy which allows officers to stop individuals and search them at the slightest suspicion (Coviello & Persico, 2015). This policy unfairly targets specific areas of groups, mainly those with minority populations. These policies create criminal records for thousands of minorities, which increases their likelihood of imprisonment with subsequent offences. Another policy that negatively affects minorities is pre-trial detention due to poverty. When one cannot pay their bail, they have to stay in custody until they are tried. Minority offenders, mainly black and Hispanic males, receive harsher punishment for similar crimes as their white counterparts.

One possible counterargument for this idea is that no one can be arrested or imprisoned without committing a crime. It is impossible for a police officer to arrest an innocent individual, and the courts convict them for a non-existent offence. Every offender must be prepared to face the consequences of their crime, regardless of their demographics. Although this is quite true, the fact remains that an officer determined to find a crime will usually find one. There is a generally negative perception that individuals of colour tend to be criminals, so officers target them with policies such as stop and frisk. When they complain about unfair treatment, they will be arrested for resisting and refusing to cooperate with officers. Such scenarios are quite common, showing that officers’ bias will determine who gets arrested and get a criminal record, increasing their chances of imprisonment.


In summary, race and ethnicity play a significant role in incarceration within the US. Minority groups are more likely than majority groups to be sent to prison for the same offence. Some of the factors that contribute to the situation include policies in the criminal justice system and structural disadvantages minorities face. The criminal justice system should ensure that every individual gets justice, but instead, it perpetuates injustice. Social and political stakeholders need to work together to make sure that no particular group is unfairly targeted. Rather than rely on imprisonment as the only form of punishment or rehabilitation, other social programs should be considered, especially those that make a positive difference for offenders.


Coviello, Decio, and Nicola Persico. 2015. “An economic analysis of Black-White disparities in the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program.” The Journal of Legal Studies 44.2: 315-360.

Gase, Lauren Nichol, et al. 2016. “Understanding racial and ethnic disparities in arrest: the role of individual, home, school, and community characteristics.” Race and social problems 8.4: 296-312.

Hetey, Rebecca C., and Jennifer L. Eberhardt. 2018. “The numbers don’t speak for themselves: Racial disparities and the persistence of inequality in the criminal justice system.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 27.3: 183-187.

Huq, Aziz Z. 2016. “The consequences of disparate policing: Evaluating stop and frisk as a modality of urban policing.” Minn. L. Rev. 101: 2397.

Jeffers, Janie L. 2019. “Justice is not blind: Disproportionate incarceration rate of people of color.” Social work in public health 34.1: 113-121.

Light, Michael T., and Jeffery T. Ulmer. 2016. “Explaining the gaps in white, black, and Hispanic violence since 1990: Accounting for immigration, incarceration, and inequality.” American Sociological Review 81.2: 290-315.

Omori, Marisa. 2017. “Spatial dimensions of racial inequality: Neighborhood racial characteristics and drug sentencing.” Race and Justice 7.1: 35-58.

Pettit, Becky, and Bryan L. Sykes. 2015. “Civil rights legislation and legalized exclusion: Mass incarceration and the masking of inequality.” Sociological Forum. Vol. 30.

Pettit, Becky, and Carmen Gutierrez. 2018. “Mass incarceration and racial inequality.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 77.3-4: 1153-1182.

Vogel, Matt, and Lauren C. Porter. 2016. “Toward a demographic understanding of incarceration disparities: Race, ethnicity, and age structure.” Journal of quantitative criminology 32.4: 515-530.

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