While there continue to be significant racial disparities in local jail incarceration rates, the gap between rates for African Americans and white Americans is narrowing, a report from the Vera Institute of Justice finds.
Supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge, the report, Divided Justice: Trends in Black and White Jail Incarceration 1990-2013 (48 pages, PDF), found that incarceration rates for African Americans rose 27 percent between 1990 and 2005 but fell 20 percent between 2005 and 2013, even as rates for white Americans nearly doubled between 1990 and 2013. According to data analyses based on the Vera Institute's Incarceration Trends Tool, the local jail incarceration rate for African Americans increased from 904 per 100,000 in 1990 to a peak of 1,148 per 100,000 in 2005, before declining to 915 per 100,000 in 2013. And while African Americans remain overrepresented in local jail populations, they were only 3.6 times more likely than white Americans to be incarcerated in local jails in 2013, compared with nearly seven times more likely in 1990.
For white Americans, the local jail incarceration rate rose from 135 per 100,000 in 1990 to 252 per 100,000 in 2005 to 255 per 100,000 in 2013. The report also found that smaller jurisdictions registered the highest percentage increases between 1990 and 2013 — 165 percent in rural areas and a 96 percent increase in small and medium metro areas, compared with 30 percent in urban areas.
What's driving the diverging trends is unclear, the report notes, citing a lack of complete and accurate data. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics does not sort data by race/ethnicity in its Annual Survey of Jails or Census of Jails — which provide most of the existing data on jail incarceration — and it reports the racial/ethnic breakdown of the jail population only for a selected snapshot date rather than by jail admissions.
The report recommends that further examination of recent trends should focus on whether criminal justice policies, practices, and resource allocations are affecting racial/ethnic groups differently; whether data collection on Latino/as is skewing white incarceration rates; whether resource constraints are influencing trends in incarceration; and whether the opioid epidemic has contributed to rising white incarceration rates outside urban jurisdictions.
"Understanding the changing narrative about race in local justice systems — and how it varies from place to place — is a critical task not only for those who study the justice system and seek to improve it," Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, writes in the report. "It matters equally, or even more so, for those on the ground, inside and outside government, who care about equity, justice, and safety."