Black people are incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than White people in the US, with Black men more likely to be reincarcerated more often and more quickly after release, according to a study published in the journal Justice Quarterly
More than 1.5 million men and women are held in state and federal prisons across the US, 93 percent of whom are male, according to a report by the US Department of Justice. Among them, people of color are “disproportionately represented’ with estimates suggesting that the incarceration rate for Black men is nearly six times higher than that of their White counterparts.
In order to determine the rates of recidivism – when a convicted person re-offends and is reincarcerated after release – for Black and White men and women, researchers at Florida State University, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Iowa estimated risk factors determining the time it took more than 21,000 Black and White men and women released from North Carolina state prisons between 2000 and 2001 to return to prison.
"In our study, the most potent predictor of recidivism was being a Black male, even though Black men had less contact with the criminal justice system and few of the risk factors traditionally associated with recidivism," said study co-author Stephanie C. Kennedy, assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Connecticut, in a statement. "This suggests that beyond individual risk, other factors, including racism and implicit bias, as well as poverty and employment opportunities in the local community, are driving recidivism."
Individualized risk factors were determined using a tool that most state correctional systems look at, including prior convictions, marital and socioeconomic statuses, history of drug addiction, employment and education, age and gender of entry, as well as their “attitude” defined by an officer’s “subjective opinion of the offender’s motivation to change.” Researchers analyzed the types of crimes committed and the total number of offenses, as well as removed gender in order to calculate the risk of reincarceration from minimal or low to high.
More than 58 percent of Black men in the study were reincarcerated in a North Carolina state prison within eight years. By comparison, less than half of White men and women and just over 41 percent of Black women were reincarcerated during the same time period
Black men were less likely to be identified as high risk. In fact, White women were more likely to be identified as high risk due to their current offenses, lower rates of high school graduation, employment and financial status, as well as drug and alcohol histories. The findings suggest that race may be a leading factor in determining whether Black men will be reincarcerated.
"In light of our findings, we need to look beyond individual-level risk and begin to explore the individual, community, and policy-level factors – including pervasive racism and increased surveillance – that result in reincarceration for people of color, and specifically for Black men," said Katie Ropes Berry, doctoral candidate in the School of Social Work at Florida State University, who led the study.
It is important to note that the study largely relied on administrative data, which could be flawed and only looked at “key racial differences,” failing to address racial subgroups. Even so, the study authors suggest offering anti-racism training at “every level of the criminal justice system” to destabilize “deeply ingrained implicit and explicit racial biases.”