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The Racial Divide in Prisons Is Shrinking

The racial divide in state prisons in California and around the country narrowed considerably over the last 16 years, but African Americans are still far more likely to spend time behind bars than whites. A study from the Council on Criminal Justice released on Dec. 3 reveals that racial disparities for every type of major crime have fallen in state and local prisons across the country with the biggest demographic shift being observed among drug offenders. The racial gap is also lower among individuals on parole and probation according to the study.

Most experts concede that racial prejudice in the criminal justice system and harsh sentencing laws introduced to combat a wave of crime linked to crack cocaine led to the mass incarceration of African Americans in the 1980s and 1990s. By the year 2000, African Americans were 15 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison for violating drug laws.

That figure has now fallen to six times more likely. However, not all experts are convinced that the fall in racial sentencing disparities is a reflection of more enlightened police and prosecutorial attitudes. The crack epidemic is a thing of the past, and newer drug menaces, such as opioids and methamphetamine, are considered to be more of a problem for the white community. Many observers believe that these changes in the illegal drug market and not criminal justice reforms are the primary driver of shifting prison demographics.

When their clients have been charged with nonviolent drug crimes, experienced criminal defense attorneys may urge prosecutors to consider sanctions that are geared toward rehabilitation, and they might point to studies that suggest harsh sentences do society more harm than good. Attorneys may add weight to these arguments by discussing mitigating factors such as a prior clean record, family support, gainful full-time employment, and sincere regret.