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Race and Ethnicity

Incarceration And Minorities

The first inmate of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829 was an eighteen-year-old black American. So began a long legacy of higher rates of incarceration for black Americans. In 1989 the number of black prisoners surpassed the number of whites; by 2003 some 832,400 black Americans were in the nation's prison and jail system compared to 665,100 whites and 363,900 Hispanics.

In 2003 4,834 out of every 100,000 black males were sentenced to prison compared to 681 per every 100,000 white males and 1,778 per 100,000 Hispanic males. Though the rate of black males going to prison was high, the fastest rising segment of prison population by the late twentieth century was minority females.

Hispanic Americans

Hispanic Americans come from many national origins that are culturally and economically diverse. Most Hispanics in the United States come from Mexico. Overall, Hispanics are poorer and less educated than the U.S. population. The language barrier between Hispanics and police contribute to rougher treatment during arrests. Illegal immigration has caused much fear in the U.S. population. In 1990 just over 10 percent of Hispanic men were either in prison or on parole or probation. Just over 3.7 percent of Hispanic men between ages of twenty and twenty-nine were in prison in 2003 compared to 1.6 percent of whites.

As with blacks, drug offenses were a major element of prison terms. Youth gangs have been an ongoing and violent problem involving drugs and guns. Organized crime has established strong ties with Hispanics involving drug trafficking of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana from Latin America. In the late 1990s it was estimated that some three thousand Colombian drug trafficking groups were operating in the United States.

As in the United States, proportionately large numbers of people considered minorities in other countries are incarcerated as well including in France and England. U.S. studies showed that blacks were commonly sent to prison at higher rates and for longer prison terms than whites for the same crimes. Though blacks were always overrepresented in prisons, the differences from white population rates increased dramatically in the 1990s. The incarceration rate for blacks rose 63 percent during the decade; in contrast, the white rate rose 36 percent and the Hispanic rate 35 percent. Increases for the period were due in large part to the War on Drugs proclaimed in the mid-1980s.

Over half of those sentenced for drug offenses were black in 1998. In the late 1990s about 9 percent of the total black adult population in the United States was under correctional supervision compared to 2 percent of the white adult population. The percentage of younger adults was much higher. Some 33 percent of the black American male population between twenty and twenty-nine years of age were either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

Blacks were much more likely to be sent to prison than placed on probation. As a result, black men were locked up at a rate of nine times that of whites. Blacks comprised over 40 percent of the prison population, almost 44 percent in 2003, on any given day. In addition, almost as many blacks were on death row (1,514) in 1999 as whites (1,948).

The experience of black Americans in the U.S. prison system is considered by some as a modern-day version of the slavery plantations in the South. Following the Civil War, the newly developing Southern prison systems held predominately black populations. Inmates worked in cotton fields, much as slaves had before the Civil War. Southern prisoners were worked in the fields for profit, often for private companies, and occasionally for the federal government's Federal Prison Industries program.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRace and Ethnicity - Race In U.s. Legal History, Native Americans, Black Americans And Crime, Policing And Minorities