Racial inequality is evident in every stage of the criminal justice system - here are the key statistics compiled into a series of charts.

by Wendy Sawyer, July 27, 2020

Recent protests calling for radical changes to American policing have brought much-needed attention to the systemic racism within our criminal justice system. This extends beyond policing, of course: Systemic racism is evident at every stage of the system, from policing to prosecutorial decisions, pretrial release processes, sentencing, correctional discipline, and even reentry. The racism inherent in mass incarceration affects children as well as adults, and is often especially punishing for people of color who are also marginalized along other lines, such as gender and class.

Because racial disparity data is often frustratingly hard to locate, we’ve compiled the key data available into a series of charts, arranged into five slideshows focused on policing, juvenile justice, jails and pretrial detention, prisons and sentencing, and reentry. These charts provide a fuller picture of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, and make clear that a broad transformation will be needed to uproot the racial injustice of mass incarceration.

Following the slideshows, we also address five frequently asked questions about criminal justice race/ethnicity data.

There are racial disparities in policing and arrests:

  • police contact
  • use of force
  • number of arrests
  • police contact
  • use of force
  • number of arrests


There are racial disparities in the arrest and confinement of youth:

  • youth arrests
  • youth confinement
  • youth confinement for low level offenses
  • youth arrests
  • youth confinement
  • youth confinement for low level offenses


There are racial disparities in local jails and pretrial detention:

  • jail incarceration rates
  • pretrial growth
  • incomes of people held pretrial
  • jail incarceration rates
  • pretrial growth
  • incomes of people held pretrial


There are racial disparities in prisons, extreme sentences, and solitary confinement:

  • imprisonment rates
  • pre-incarceration incomes of people in prison
  • life sentences
  • death sentences
  • solitary confinement
  • imprisonment rates
  • pre-incarceration incomes of people in prison
  • life sentences
  • death sentences
  • solitary confinement


There are racial disparities in homelessness, unemployment, and poverty after release:

  • unemployment
  • homelessness
  • wealth accumulation
  • unemployment
  • homelessness
  • wealth accumulation


Frequently asked questions about race and ethnicity in criminal justice data

Q: Why are terms used inconsistently, such as “Hispanic” and “Latino/a”?

A: Sharp-eyed readers will notice some inconsistency in the terms used in the charts above, and across the literature more generally. For example, the Census Bureau and most national criminal justice data uses the category “American Indian or Alaska Native” to describe indigenous people in the U.S., but the juvenile justice system data uses the term “American Indian.” Likewise, “Hispanic” is used most frequently in various national data sets to refer to those with Spanish-speaking ancestry, but some sources use Latino/a (or Latinx), which specifically refers to those with Latin American ancestry. In these charts (and in most of our publications), we use the terminology of the original data sources.

Q: Why are some racial/ethnic categories not represented in the data?

A: The question of how accurately race and ethnicity data reflect justice-involved populations goes beyond inconsistent labels. Most obviously, not all racial or ethnic groups are consistently represented in the data; less populous Census-identified groups, such as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Asian, and American Indian or Alaska Native – as well as the sizable but less specific “Two or more races” and “Some other race” – are very often excluded in publications, even when they are collected. Moreover, all of these categories are so broad that they lump together groups with very different experiences with the U.S. justice system. They disregard tribal differences, sweep people of East Asian and South Asian origins into one category, and somehow ignore Arab Americans entirely. As a result, our observations of racial and ethnic discrimination are limited to these broad categories and lack any real nuance.

Q: Where can I find data about racial disparities in my state’s criminal justice system?

A: Unfortunately, the more specific you want to get with race/ethnicity data, the harder it is to find an answer, especially one that’s up-to-date. State-level race and ethnicity data can be hard to find if you are looking to federal government sources like the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). BJS does publish state-level race and ethnicity data in its annual Prisoners series (Appendix Table 2 in 2018), but only every 6-7 years in its Jail Inmates series (most recently the 2013 Census of Jails report, Table 7). The Vera Institute of Justice has attempted to fill this gap with its Incarceration Trends project, by gathering additional data from individual states. Individual state Departments of Correction sometimes collect and/or publish more up-to-date and specific data; it’s worth checking with your own state’s agencies.

Q: Where can I find criminal justice race/ethnicity data disaggregated by sex?

A: Disaggregating racial/ethnic data by sex is unfortunately not the norm in reports produced by the federal government (i.e. BJS). For people able to access and analyze the raw data, such analyses are often possible, but most people rely on the reports published by government agencies like BJS. As you can see in the chart showing prison incarceration rates by sex and race/ethnicity, BJS does sometimes offer this level of detail. But again, the same level of detail is not available for jails, and an analysis of both race/ethnicity and sex by state is all but unheard-of – even though it is precisely this level of detail that is most useful for advocates trying to help specific populations in their state.

Q: How are the data collected, and how accurate are the data?

A: Finally, the validity of any data depends on how the data are collected in the first place. And in the case of criminal justice data, race and ethnicity are not always self-reported (which would be ideal). Police officers may report an individual’s race based on their own perception – or not report it at all – and the surveys that report the number of incarcerated people on a given day rely on administrative data, which may not reflect how individuals identify their own race or ethnicity. This is why surveys of incarcerated people themselves are so important, such as the Survey of Inmates in Local Jails and the Survey of Prison Inmates, but those surveys are conducted much less frequently. In fact, it’s been 18 years since the last Survey of Inmates in Local Jails, which we use to analyze pretrial jail populations, and 16 years since the last published data from the Survey of Inmates were collected.


How to link to specific images

Because some readers might want to link to specific images in this briefing out of the context of these slideshows, we’ve created these special URLs so you can link directly to a specific image:

Black people are disproportionately stopped on the street by police, while white people are much more likely to call the police for help
Among individuals who have any contact with police, people of color disproportionately experience the use of force
Black people are disproportionately likely to be arrested, and to be arrested repeatedly in the same year
Black youth are arrested far out of proportion to their share of all youth in the U.S.
The juvenile justice system confines Black youth at over 4 times the rate of white youth
For the lowest level offenses, Black and American Indian youth are confined at rates over 3 times the rate of white youth
Racial disparities in local jail incarceration rates
Pretrial populations, disproportionately Black and Hispanic, have more than doubled over 15 years
People detained pretrial because they can’t pay bail are much poorer than their peers – and the income gaps are widest for Black people
Racial disparities in prison incarceration rates, by sex, 2018
Most people in prison are poor,
 and the poorest are women and people of color
Black people are disproportionately serving sentences of life, life without parole, or “virtual life”
Black people are overrepresented on death row, while white people are underrepresented
Black men and women are overrepresented in solitary confinement, when compared to total prison populations
The “prison penalty” in unemployment disproportionately punishes formerly incarcerated Black men and women
Formerly incarcerated people have very high rates of homelessness, especially women and people of color
Incarceration and wealth accumulation, by race and ethnicity

Please welcome Tiana Herring, our newest Research Associate!

by Jenny Landon, July 22, 2020

Tiana Herring

We’re super excited to welcome our newest Research Associate, Tiana Herring. Tiana is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she studied Political Science and Contemporary European Studies. For her honors thesis, she conducted research on state laws regarding prison reentry services and their impact on recidivism rates. In the few short months that she has been with us, Tiana has already published How inflation makes your state’s criminal justice system harsher today than it was yesterday and contributed heavily to our Virus Response work. In her spare time, Tiana is into furniture restoration and painting.

Welcome, Tiana!

Suspending drivers license for unpaid fines and fees creates an unnecessary cycle of punishment and poverty.

by Jenny Landon, July 22, 2020

When someone’s driver’s license is revoked, you might assume that it’s because they committed a serious driving-related offense, like reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident, or driving while impaired. While that is often the case, a full 40% of license suspensions are for reasons totally unrelated to driving. Most states suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees or for failure to pay child support. (Some states even suspend licenses for littering, burning trash, skipping school, unpaid student loans, and – as we have written about before – drug offenses unrelated to driving).

11 million people have had their licenses suspended because they could not afford to pay court fines and fees. The Driving for Opportunity Act would encourage states to stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.

License suspensions create a cycle of punishment:

  1. A person loses their license because they can’t afford court fines or fees.
  2. The loss of a license makes it harder to get to work to earn the money needed to pay off their debt. Of course, it also makes it harder to take children to school, shop for groceries, get to medical appointments, make court dates, etc.
  3. To meet these basic needs, 83% of people with suspended licenses continue to drive. Driving with a suspended license puts them at risk for even greater fines, or even incarceration, which is incredibly expensive for the individual as well as the taxpayer.

Suspending licenses for unpaid court fines and fees punishes people for being poor and traps them in a cycle of debt. Suspension laws disproportionately impact poor communities, communities of color, and communities that have few alternative means of transportation. Research in New Jersey found that while only 16% of the state population is low-income, 50% of the people who have their driver’s licenses suspended are low-income. And more than 40% of drivers lost their jobs after their license was suspended.

The harms of driver’s license suspensions extend beyond the individuals who lose their licenses. Motor vehicle administrators and law enforcement officials themselves have argued that “our limited resources should be focused on dangerous drivers.” Yet thousands of taxpayer dollars are spent punishing safe drivers who simply can’t afford to pay certain fines.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators collected data from their members on the hidden costs of suspending driver’s licenses:

  • Colorado found that suspending driver’s licenses for offenses unrelated to driving consumed 8,566 hours per year of staff time — the equivalent of four full-time employees.
  • Florida estimated that $72,000 a year is spent on paper, envelopes, and postage in order to correspond with people whose licenses were suspended for non-driving reasons.
  • Georgia expected that reforming its non-driving suspension laws would save $80,000 a year in postage costs alone.

License suspension also doesn’t work as a means to get people to pay off their debt: The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators evaluated this claim, concluding: “there is no evidence which indicates that suspending a person’s driving privileges for social non-conformance reasons is effective in gaining compliance with the reason for the original non-driving suspension.”

For years, we’ve been successfully campaigning to get states to end the practice of suspending drivers licenses for drug offenses. You can learn more about that work in our report Reinstating Common Sense.

For these reasons and more, we gladly signed on to a letter (written by the Free to Drive Campaign) urging U.S Senate leaders to pass the Driving for Opportunity Act.

These four bills relate to decarceration in response to COVID-19, making phone calls from prison and jail free, strengthening visitation, and "raising the age."

by Jenny Landon, July 17, 2020

Uprisings for racial justice across the country have called for a long-overdue reckoning with the ways we police and punish. In Massachusetts, where the Prison Policy Initiative is based, there are a number of reform bills currently being considered (some better than others). In particular, there are four bills pending that relate directly to our current and past work, including decarceration in response to COVID-19, making phone calls from prison and jail free, strengthening visitation, and “raising the age” of juvenile court jurisdiction.

  • H.4652: An Act regarding decarceration and COVID-19, which proposes to release people who are held pretrial or who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19. As of July 2020, nine of the ten largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country are in prisons and jails, and people in prison are dying from COVID-19 at a rate 3 times higher than the general population. In Massachusetts, thousands of people are held pretrial while legally innocent, and 15% of the prison population is over 55. The state must act now to prevent further tragedy inside our prisons and jails. See our letter of support here.
  • S.2846 (previously S.1372): An Act relative to inmate telephone calls, which would make phone calls free for people in prisons and jails. In Massachusetts, phone calls from jail are almost 3 times more expensive than from state prisons, making it difficult for the thousands of pretrial defendants to prepare a successful defense while detained. Meanwhile, prison phone rates continue to strain the pocketbooks of many of our Commonwealth’s poorest residents.For more information, check out our past work on phone justice. See our letter of support here.
  • H.2047: An Act to strengthen inmate visitation, which would loosen restrictions on visits, including irrational practices like turning away visitors based on dress code violations that pose no threat to security, refusing visitors solely because of their status as formerly incarcerated, or prohibiting incarcerated people from holding their children. As we have argued before, these unnecessary restrictions actually diminish public safety and punish family members— face-to-face visits with loved ones are shown to reduce recidivism. Incarcerated people who successfully maintain strong bonds with community members are more likely to succeed upon reentry. See our letter of support here.
  • H.3420: An Act to promote public safety and better outcomes for young adults, which would shift young adults between the ages of 18-20 into the juvenile system, rather than the adult criminal justice system. Because juvenile courts are more likely to hand down sentences other than incarceration, the passage of this reform bill would reduce the number of people held in jail or prison. Moreover, brain development research shows that people in this age bracket (emerging adults) are still maturing, and are more effectively served by the more rehabilitation-oriented juvenile system. Young people in Massachusetts deserve a chance to develop into full adulthood without the additional trauma of incarceration or the stigma of a public criminal record. See our letter of support here.

Are you in Massachusetts and want to support the passage of these bills? Check out this guide for calling your legislators from the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition.

New research in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the tragic results of states' negligence of incarcerated people.

by Emily Widra, July 8, 2020

Today we tweeted about new research using data from the UCLA School of Law’s COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. The findings, published today in JAMA, present a startling picture of just how widespread COVID-19 is behind bars, especially compared with national COVID-19 infection and death rates:

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