Race and Incarceration: Understanding the Connections
by Cynthia Holder Rich
There is racial disparity in the criminal justice system in the United States. A substantial body of research shows that a disproportionate number of racial ethnic minorities are incarcerated. How and why this disparity exists is less well known. Legislative policies and/or decision making, racial bias by individuals in law enforcement or court systems, and systemic racism are just a few of the possible reasons for the disproportion.
Whatever the causes, our faith calls us to explore this justice issue and advocate for reforms that will provide for the equal treatment of all of God’s children.
Race to Imprisonment
As Janet Wolf explored (pp. 6–8), greater numbers of Americans are being imprisoned than ever before. There are a number of reasons that have been identified for this huge increase:
The trend is one that impacts all communities. Here, we’ll look at how the increase falls harder on some groups than others.
Proportionally, the number of African Americans and Hispanic/Latino persons in prison in the U.S. is much greater than numbers within the general population would predict. The Sentencing Project pairs statistics of the Census Bureau with those from the Bureau of Justice to report that while African Americans make up 13 percent of the overall population, they account for 38 percent of prison and jail populations. Similarly, Latinos are 15 percent of the overall population, and 19 percent of the prison and jail population.
Reasons for this are deep and complex, and stem from the relationships people of different racial and cultural backgrounds have built for centuries—with bricks both painful and positive—in North America. While time and space do not permit a thorough review of this issue, a few key issues are presented here for reflection and discussion.
Is incarceration concentrated in specific neighborhoods? To find out, read the full text of this article in the May/June 2010 issue of Horizons.
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Cynthia Holder-Rich is Lilly Research Fellow at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She is a member of the PC(USA) Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, and presents and publishes on issues of race and culture in the Christian community.
Photo by Erika Kyte /Getty Images.
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