Racial Disproportionality in U.S. State Prisons: Accounting for the Effects of Racial and Ethnic Differences in Criminal Involvement, Arrests, Sentencing, and Time Served

Original Paper



An important indicator of discrimination in the criminal justice system is the degree to which race differences in arrest account for racial disproportionality in prisons (“accountability”). A recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study raised concerns by reporting low and declining estimates of accountability. Our improved measure accounts for unreported Hispanic arrestees. We measure accountability at intermediate stages, including commitments to prison and time served. We also use victim reports to extend accountability from arrest to differential involvement in violent crimes.


Our methods utilize information on self-reported racial identity of Hispanic prisoners to provide more accurate comparison with the race of arrestees. We also assess accountability for 42 individual states and 4 regions.


Our national estimate of accountability is close to previous estimates and much higher than those in the NAS report. Accountability is high for the serious violent crimes of murder and rape, and low for drug trafficking, drug possession, weapons, and aggravated assault, which involve more discretion in arrest, labeling and charging.


Our more accurate accountability results contradict the NAS report of low and declining accountability. Regional accountability estimates show no consistently stronger or weaker region. We also show a corrected national estimate of the ratio of black-to-white incarceration-rates has dropped from 6.8 in 1990 to 4.7 in 2011, an important correction to concerns of increasing discrimination. Reports of offenders’ race by victims and arrestees’ race are found to be close, supporting use of arrest as an indicator of involvement in violent crimes.


Racial disproportionality Prisons Hispanic prisoners US states Accountability 



We much appreciate the very helpful assistance provided by Susan Foster Logoyda and Gursmeep Hundal while they were studying for a Master of Science degree in Public Policy and Management at the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University.


The analysis and conclusions presented here are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Bureau of Justice Statistics or the U.S. Department of Justice.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.U. S. Department of JusticeBureau of Justice StatisticsWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Heinz College of Information Systems and Public PolicyCarnegie Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

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