Wednesday, July 18, 2007

sentencing project report on racial disparity

updated: 7/19

the sentencing project sent word today of their new report, Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity. taking data from their tables, i graphed the state ratios of black-to-white incarceration shown below (note: this figure was revised 9/19 to correct a mislabeled state):

the disparity seems to be lowest in hawaii, though -- let's be clear about this -- a ratio of 1.9 still means that african americans are almost twice as likely as whites to be incarcerated in that state. southern states also have relatively low disproportionality ratios, partly due to their higher-than-average incarceration of whites. things are most disparate in iowa, vermont, new jersey, connecticut, wisconsin, and the dakotas, with african americans getting locked up at a rate 10 times that of whites. there is no state in which african american incarceration rates are anywhere near parity with white rates.

the report also computes ratios for hispanics versus non-hispanic whites, though i suspect that data quality varies considerably among the states on this indicator. nevertheless, i graphed these data as well:

comparing the two charts, the first thing i notice is the difference in scale on the y-axes: from 1.9 to 19 for the african american-to-white chart and from .4 to 6.6 on the hispanic-to-white chart. only connecticut, massachusetts, and pennsylvania had hispanic-to-white ratios of greater than 5. moreover, two states reached parity -- a ratio of 1.0 -- and five states had ratios indicating lower incarceration among hispanics than among non-hispanic whites: georgia, alaska, florida, arkansas, west virginia, louisiana, and hawaii. again, such ratios should probably be interpreted with a bit more caution than those presented in the first figure, since ethnicity is inconsistently reported in the criminal justice system.

the state-to-state differences are instructive and sobering, especially for northerners who might be smug or complacent about racial inequality. criminal punishment represents one area in which racial disparity appears far worse in the north than in the south, with mostly-white states such as connecticut leading the way in racial inequality. still, the overall disparities remain the big story: nationally, african american incarceration rates are 5.6 times as high as white rates, while hispanic rates are 1.8 times those of non-hispanic whites.

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