Ethnic Groups In American Correctional Population Criminology Essay

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Race, class, and gender powerfully influence our life chances, shaping where we go to school, work, and reside, whom we marry, and how long we live. They intersect in numerous complex ways, both within the prison and outside. Prisoners are disproportionately likely to be poor, male, and members of minority groups, particularly African American and Latino (Reiman, 2004). To that extent, the penal population does not reflect the outside community at all.

Mainstream Explanations

Assuming that rising crime rates account for all or most of the increases in prison population, mainstream social scientists have tried to explain why crime rates rose for the general population during the period of prison expansion. The researchers have given special attention to the situation African Americans face. Researchers cite Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics to support an argument that the growth in the number of African American prisoners is the result of increasing rates of crime that disproportionately involve blacks (Harrison & Beck, 2003). Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data show a slow but steady climb in rates of street crime throughout the 1950s and 1960s, followed by a steep and unstable increase during the 1970s. By 1980, the crime rate was double its 1970 level. The UCR also shows blacks committing proportionately more street crime given their representation in the population than other ethnic groups. According to the FBI, blacks consistently accounted for nearly 50% of violent crime arrests and for more than 30% of property crime arrests during the 1980s, a period of rapid prison growth. Victimization data compiled by the U.S. Justice Department support the UCR finding, although the disproportionality is much less (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000)

observers marshal these figures to support two major explanations. In one account, rooted in a New Liberal orientation, residential segregation, industrial segmentation, and large-scale domestic trends such as white flight concentrate blacks trends such as white flight concentrate blacks in criminogenic inner-city environments. Living in these conditions leads to overrepresentation in crime for two reasons. First, blacks (and Latinos) tend to dominate various forms of street crime and the sex and drug trades. Second, ordinary policing is concentrated in impoverished minority neighborhoods where crime rates are higher (Harrison & Beck, 2003). The other explanation, issuing from conservative quarters, implicates cultural traditions in the creation of criminogenic environments. Attributed characteristics of black culture, for example, include negative attitudes toward learning and achieving, lack of self-reliance, poor labor force attachment, an inability to delay gratification, promiscuity, and violent tendencies. Conservatives point to the black family structure as the main culprit. Female-headed households are overrepresented among black families. According to conservatives, liberal welfare policies during the 1950s to 1970s fostered a culture of dependency. These developments combined with liberal permissiveness in criminal justice policy to drive up crime rates among blacks.

There is reason to doubt the assumption that underpins both arguments-the belief that crime causes punishment. First, since the UCR is the product of police departments, it more likely reflects police behavior rather than actual crime patterns. Growth in UCR statistics during the 1970s and 1980s reflects a combination of policing practices and better reporting and superior computer record keeping by law enforcement. Data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) indicates that crime remained stable or declined during this period (Barlow, Barlow & Chiricos, 1993). Since the NCVS is a scientifically conducted survey and the UCR is not, there is good reason to accept its findings over those of the UCR. Second, leaving aside drug offenses, levels for the three crimes for which people are most often incarcerated-namely, murder, robbery, and burglary-remained relatively stable between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. Third, the relationship between demographic trends and incarceration is contradictory. After 1990, incarceration rates should have declined, since the proportion of those of prime incarceration age declined as a proportion of the population. Yet, incarceration skyrocketed (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002).

What then explains the dramatic rise in the prison population? First, the state has criminalized more behaviors, especially drug offenses. The state has expanded criminal categories, especially those that encompass the behaviors of minorities, which creates more criminals and increases the likelihood of more nonwhite prisoners. For example, in 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, establishing severe mandatory sentences for crack cocaine possession. The bill made sentences for crack cocaine possession 100 times greater than those for powdered cocaine. This was with the knowledge that the only real difference between crack and powder cocaine was the race of the people using them: African Americans are more likely to use crack cocaine. Before mandatory minimums for crack offenses, the average federal sentence for blacks was 11% higher than for whites. Four years after the changes in drug sentencing laws, the average federal sentence was 49% higher for blacks. By 1997, African Americans were accounting for 84% of the defendants convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Second, there has been a trend in the likelihood of imposing sanctions on defendants and lengthening prison terms (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002)

How it can be solved

More ethnic and racial faces including women on the bench, or even at the stenographer's table, might be helpful (Shelden, 2001). Several states, including Washington, Michigan and New York, have already convened special commissions to consider ways to balance inequities in their system by (among other things), hiring more blacks at all levels and holding seminars and other training programs to help sensitize court officers to minority cultures. More Programs should encourage victim assistance workers to reach out to blacks and Hispanics, assuring them that they too are entitled to their day in court. It s only through such measures that minorities may begin to believe in equal justice for all.


In the United States, where more than 2 million individuals are incarcerated, certain minority groups and persons living in poverty are at much greater risk of being counted among those in prisons and jails. If the U.S. criminal justice system is a barometer of inequities in the United States, and much research indicates that it is, then this nation's inequities are great indeed. The toll of incarceration on the individual, as well as on the family and the community, is incalculable.

Recent trends in incarceration do not bode well for the future. If the United States had continued to imprison individuals at the rate it did in the period 1980-1993, critics pointed out, nearly two-thirds of black men (about 4.5 million) and one-fourth of Latinos (about 2.4 million) between the ages of 18 and 34 would be incarcerated by the year 2020. Though in recent years the rate of incarceration has slowed considerably, there are signs that imprisonment is again picking up its pace, and further growth in prison populations will at any rate worsen the situation of those groups upon whom the burden of incarceration falls most heavily. Moreover, while officials of local depressed markets believe prisons promise economic growth, the weight of massive custodial structures on society, especially in light of the fiscal crises confronting many states, may eventually become too great to sustain.

The vast majority of those entering prison today will one day return to society. Given the negative effects of incarceration on persons and communities-prisonization, stigma, constrained education and job opportunities, restricted political participation, family disruption, and lost time-this manner of dealing with lawbreakers is both practically and ethically problematic. Since people who enter prison are among the most deprived of U.S. citizens, incarceration further hobbles those whom society has already disadvantaged. Even if the criminal justice system could achieve equity in terms of race and class, the United States must still face the long-term negative consequences, the growing fiscal burden, and the moral impropriety of mass incarceration.