To reduce racial inequality in the criminal justice system, local, state, and federal government should explore ways to reduce police stops and searches, jail detention, prison admission, and long sentences, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The report recommends that governments explore coordinated policy reforms across each stage of the criminal justice system, citing drug sentencing reform, providing “second look” provisions for long sentences, eliminating revocations of community supervision for technical violations, and abolishing the death penalty as examples of reforms that could reduce racial inequality while maintaining public safety.
Governments should also explore reforms that address economic, environmental, educational, and public health disparities, said, the report, "Reducing Racial Inequality in Crime and Justice: Science, Practice, and Policy."
The report says research has documented substantial racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice process. Black Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans all experience higher rates of arrest, pre-trial detention, incarceration, and community supervision compared to whites.
While racial disparities in incarceration have declined over the last two decades, minorities still face relatively high rates of imprisonment. The impacts of disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system for Black, Latino, and Native American communities persist.
Racial inequality in criminal justice is tied to current and historical inequalities in crime and neighborhood conditions, says the report. Because of these ties, criminal justice reforms that aim to reduce inequality could be amplified by addressing social inequalities.
“Research tells us that the relationship between racial inequality in criminal justice and racial inequality more broadly is a pernicious and persistent feedback loop,” said Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “These perpetuating effects of inequality can lead to continual criminal justice involvement for individuals, severely impacting neighborhoods and communities.”
Among trends cited in the report:
Homicide Victimization – Racial disparities have grown since 2010, with Black Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos at higher risk of being homicide victims than Asian Americans or whites. These disparities grew as homicide rates rose sharply from 2014 to 2016, and again between 2019 and now.
Police Interactions and Arrests – Police officers stop and search Black Americans at rates higher than those from other racial and ethnic groups.
Pre-trial Detention – Per-capita jail populations for Blacks averaged well over three times the rates for both whites and Latinos between 2005 and 2019.
Incarceration – The Latino-white incarceration rate disparity narrowed from 1999 to 2018, along with a decline in the Black-white disparity in incarceration. For Native Americans, however, there was a widening in incarceration rates relative to white people.
Community Supervision – The probation population dropped by almost 20 percent between 2007 and 2019, but an overrepresentation of Black Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans remained.
“With a rise in urban homicide rates since 2020, there have been calls to scale back recent criminal justice reforms. But research shows it is possible to improve outcomes for communities that feel the worst effects of criminal justice inequality without increasing crime,” said Bruce Western, Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice and director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University, and committee co-chair. “Violent crime is a racial equity issue, and there are many significant examples of reducing crime while also reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.” The report urges federal and state agencies ti explore the significant expansion and evaluation of community-driven programs to improve safety and reduce harm from the criminal justice system.