Racial Disparities Decline in Female Arrests

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Last week, The Sentencing Project Executive Director Marc Mauer released findings from a new policy report evaluating female incarceration trends.

“We’ve been looking at race and incarceration for well over two decades,” he said. “The story in general has been a discouraging one. We’ve seen high–almost shockingly high–rates of incarceration for African-American men in particular, but increasingly for women of color.”

In the new Sentencing Project analysis, however, Mauer said there is currently a “shift” in the racial dynamics of incarceration, specifically regarding females in United States prisons.

According to the new report, the rate of incarceration for African-American women declined by more than 30 percent over the last decade, while rates of incarceration for Caucasian and Hispanic females rose by 47 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

“As a result of these changes, the black/white disparity for women’s incarceration was cut in half during the decade,” he said. In fact, black women were incarcerated at a rate six times that of white women in 2000. By 2009, African-American were being incarcerated at a rate just 2.8 times higher than Caucasian females.

The rate of women entering the prison system, Mauer stated, remains higher than men.

“We also believe that the story for black women and white women is likely to be two different pictures,” he said. “It’s not that, for example, law enforcement priorities shifted from targeting offenders in black neighborhoods.”

Over the last decade, Mauer said that arrest rates for both male and female African-Americans declined substantially, with violent offense arrests for the populations decreasing by 22 percent. A significant national decline in the number of drug offense arrests, he said, explains the “entire reduction” of African-American females in United States prisons.

In New York, newly enacted drug policies may have freed up the state’s prisons by nearly 25 percent since 2000, Mauer said. “In part, it would appear that just as the War on Drugs has had a very disproportionate effect on communities of color in terms of incarceration, the policy [and] practice changes that result in a decline in drug offenders are likely to disproportionately benefit those same communities.”

To explain the increase in the number of white and Hispanic women being arrested, Mauer says a confluence of factors have to be taken into consideration. “Many people have postulated that we’re seeing changes in drug offending, at least in some states, greater prosecutions for prescription drug offenses [and] methamphetamine drug offenses, which are more likely to involve whites and Hispanics, rather than African-Americans.”

Socioeconomic factors–most notably, a lack of education–may also play a role in increasing arrests of Caucasian females. “Research documents … declining life expectancies for white women without a high school degree,” Mauer said. “Many of the risk factors that correlate with declining life-expectancy are also quite relevant to potential for greater involvement in crime.”

Limited health care access, poverty and unemployment, he said, were also likely contributors to a “greater propensity” for the populations to engage in criminal activity.

The full report, The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration — which includes recommendations to address racial discrepancies in incarceration — is available on The Sentencing Project website.

Photo by abardwell | Flickr

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