ARTICLE: The Social, Psychological, and Political Causes of Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System Skip over navigation
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Crime and Justice

ARTICLE: The Social, Psychological, and Political Causes of Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System


Crime and Justice

39 Crime & Just. 273


Michael Tonry


Imprisonment rates for black Americans have been five to seven times higher than those for whites since the mid-1980s. A third of black men in their 20s are in prison or jail or on probation or parole. A third of black baby boys born in 2001 will spend part of their lives as inmates in a federal or state prison. These are extraordinary numbers that raise fundamental questions about racial, social, and criminal justice in twenty-first-century America.

Two important causal questions are raised. The first is how those numbers happened. Those answers are clear. Although violent crime arrest rates for blacks are higher than for whites, the differential has long been declining. Group differences in violent crime do not explain racial disparities in prison. What does explain them is a combination of police practices and legislative and executive policy decisions that systematically treat black offenders differently, and more severely, than whites. Policy makers emphasized law enforcement approaches to drug abuse over preventive ones. Police drug law enforcement focused effort on inner-city, primarily minority, neighborhoods, where many black Americans live, and on crack cocaine, of which blacks are a large majority of arrested sellers. Police officers engaged in widespread racial profiling and stopped blacks on streets and sidewalks much more often than is justifiable in terms of objective, race-neutral criteria. More broadly, legislatures and administrative agencies established policies in the 1980s and 1990s that mandated sentences of historically unmatched severity for violent and drug crimes, for both of ...
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