The United States has the highest prison population in the world –
more than 2 million people are incarcerated. The rate of those imprisoned
in the U.S. is 724 out every 100,000 people. However, the number of incarcerated
people does not reflect the overall demographic profile of the U.S. The
rate of incarceration is substantially higher in African American and
To fully grasp the stark racial disparities in the prison population, it’s
important to compare the numbers with the general U.S. population. For
example, African Americans account for 35.4% of prisoners but only 13.2%
of the population. In fact, blacks and Latinos together represent 70%
of the U.S. prison population while only 30% of the population as a whole.
To the uninformed, it could appear that these numbers are due to the fact
that people of color commit more crimes. However, this is untrue. The
racial disparities in the prison population are reflective of those seen
plainly in U.S. poverty rates. Historically, the rates of people of color
living in poverty are double those of the greater population. As recently
as 2015, there were 24.1% of blacks living in poverty compared to 11.4%
What these numbers indicate is far more complicated than simply alleging
that the criminal justice system is racially biased. Clearly, poverty
rates are inextricably related to incarceration rates. There has been
much recent discussion, news coverage and political movements related
to racial discrimination and the use of force at the local law enforcement
level. But what happens after an individual is arrested can be equally
imbalanced, and result in lifelong consequences depending on their socioeconomic
position. Simply put, the poorer you are the more likely you will serve
a prison sentence.
The socioeconomic factors are apparent once someone is arrested. This can
begin as early as at the time of bail. Those who have the ability to post
bail to remain out of custody have a distinct advantage over those who
cannot afford bail and remain in local jail while their case is adjudicated.
Those with the economic ability to hire a highly-qualified private criminal
defense attorney, have a much better opportunity in defending their criminal
case—or avoid the worst sentencing. When a case cannot be defended
from a legal or factual basis, a private attorney will often work to find
alternatives to a lengthy prison sentence. Private attorneys often hire
experts to prepare reports for the courts offering mitigating factors
as to why a person should not be sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Often,
the private attorney will seek to have their clients pursue treatment
in a residential program for substance abuse or mental health issues instead
of a prison sentence. Or, they can serve time in private, local jails
rather than in a county or state prison facility.
For many of those arrested and facing criminal charges, especially from
communities of color with higher poverty rates, posting bail, private
attorneys, expert witnesses and residential treatment programs are not
an option. This means staying incarcerated while defending a case and
being represented by an overworked, underfunded public defender.
While public defenders are well-educated civil servants, they are a largely
unsupported part of the criminal justice system. Their services remain
in high demand; many public defenders are saddled with excessive caseloads,
and lack the capacity to give each one the attention it deserves. In a
recent lawsuit against the state of Washington, it was revealed that public
defenders were spending less than one hour per case on average.
It’s no surprise that with this level of representation, so many
cases result in the worst kind of penalties for lower-level offenses.
For the discriminated communities of color, those living in poverty and
vulnerable to arrest, the inability to afford a private attorney often
results in long-term incarceration.
While the U.S. prison population dropped a small 2% last year, the disparities
between black and Hispanic prisoners and their white counterparts remain
the same. The demand for reform across the criminal justice system is
growing. One essential part of that change must be addressing the consequences
of an unjustly inadequate defense.