I had a conversation last night with a friend who claims that the disparities in incarceration rates between American whites and blacks is evidence of a racist justice system. She said that whites are sentenced more leniently than blacks for the same crimes under the same circumstances and I disagreed, pending evidence. In the context of the discussion there wasn't much opportunity for research, but I did some scrounging around the web this morning.
Here's a memo from Human Rights Watch that gives some statistics on the racially disproportionate incarceration of drug offenders. Essentially, more blacks go to jail for drug crimes than whites, and for longer terms. The most significant aspect of the memo, however, is the conclusion -- which echos my position from last night.
The specific reasons for the discrepancy between the black proportion of felony drug convictions and of drug admissions have not been analyzed. They may include such factors as the type of drug offense, the type of drug, and the presence of prior record. For example, blacks comprised 56 percent of persons convicted of trafficking felonies while whites comprised 43 percent.When these critical factors are controlled for, it may turn out that blacks are imprisoned at a rate disproportionate to their population simply because they commit a disproportionate number of crimes. Other important factors may include whether or not the offender was abused as a child, whether he grew up in a single-parent family, and so forth. If so, these imprisonment statistics aren't evidence of racism inherent in the system.