This One Graphic Sums Up the Devastating Racial Disparities in Our Prisons

July 20th 2015

The criminal justice system in America is racially skewed, and as incarceration rates continue to climb, studies have found that African-Americans are disproportionately affected to a significant extent.

This illustration from the Sentencing Project shows exactly how stark the racial disparity is in the U.S. justice system.

Lifetime Likelihood of IncarcerationThe Sentencing Project - sentencingproject.org

For Black men, the likelihood of incarceration over an individual's lifetime is 1 in 3. Compare that to the odds of a white man landing in prison—1 in 17—and you begin to understand the inequity of this institution.

"The rise in the institutionalized population among black men without a high school diploma has been even more dramatic. By 2010, nearly a third of black, male high school dropouts aged 25-29 were imprisoned or otherwise institutionalized. This is higher than the employment rate for the same group, which was less than 25 percent," the Washington Post reported.

A 2014 paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that Black communities have experienced higher rates of incarceration due to drug war-era policies and that, in effect, "the position of most black men, relative to white men, is no better than how things stood after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965."

"Since 1980, incarceration rates among both black and white men in most age groups have increased by factors of two to three, but these changes have had a much larger impact on Black communities," the University of Chicago researchers explained. "Because Black male incarceration rates were much higher than corresponding white rates before the prison boom ever began, the impact on Black communities of more than two than two-fold increase in incarcerations rates has been dramatic."

President Obama acknowledged the need for criminal justice reform in a series of speaking events last week—at the annual NAACP convention in Philadelphia and at a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma, among other venues—and noted the racially disproportionate injustices as well as the importance of changing the country's drug sentencing laws, especially for non-violent offenders.

"Sometimes, I get in debates about how to think about progress or the lack of progress when it comes to issues of race and inequality in America," Obama said. "Oh let me tell you something, I see what happens. My heart breaks when I see families who are impacted."

Obama said that he feels like he can relate to many of the men currently behind bars.

"I see those young men on street corners and eventually in prisons, and I think to myself, they could be me—that the main difference between me and them is I had a more forgiving environment so that when I slipped up, when I made a mistake, I had a second chance. And they've got no margin for error."

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