The Changing Racial
Dynamics of Women’s
THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF
In the first decade of the 21st century the United States began to experience a
shift in the 30 year buildup to a world record prison system. Although the
decade ended with an increased number of people in prison, the rate of growth
overall was considerably below that of previous decades and since 2008 the overall
number of people in state prisons has declined slightly each year.
Scholars are beginning to analyze the relative contributions of changes in crime rates,
criminal justice policies, economics, and demographics to the slowing
growth rate of the prison system, but one area that has gone largely unexplored is the impact of
such changes on racial disparities in imprisonment. As is well known black/white
disparities in the use of incarceration have been profound for quite some time. Since
the 1980s a series of analyses have documented these trends at the national level as
well as examining variation in disparity among the states.
As prison populations fluctuate, though, the relative rate of incarceration among
racial groups may or may not reflect prevailing patterns. Further, as the prospect of a
declining prison population has now become a distinct possibility for the next
decade, it will become increasingly important to monitor whether reduced
incarceration is experienced in similar ways across racial/ethnic groups.
This report first describes trends in incarceration for the first decade of the century,
and contrasts this with patterns of the previous decade. We then assess the extent of
change in the race and gender dynamics of incarceration over the past decade, and
suggest factors which may be contributing to these trends. The data in this report
document the following key findings:
THE CHANGING RACIAL DYNAMICS OF WOMEN’S INCARCERATION
Racial/ethnic disparities in U.S.incarceration remain substantial
In 2009, African Americans and Latinos constituted more than 60% of imprisoned
offenders. African American males were incarcerated in state and federal
prisons at 6.4 times the rate of non Hispanic white males, and Hispanic
males at 2.4 times the rate of non Hispanic whites
Declining rate of incarceration for African Americans from 2000 to 2009
the rate of incarceration in state and federal prisons declined 9.8% for black men and 30.7% for black women.
Rates of incarceration for whites and Latinos generally rising
–Incarceration rates for white men and women rose 8.5% and 47.1%, respectively from 2000 to 2009. For Hispanics the men’s rate declined by 2.2% while the women’s rate rose by 23.3%.
Dramatic shift in racial disparities among women
In 2000 black women were incarcerated in state and federal prisons at six times the rate of white
women. By 2009 that ratio had declined by 53%, to 2.8:1. This shift was a result of both declining incarceration of African American women and rising incarceration of white women. The disparity between Hispanic and non Hispanic white women declined by 16.7% during this period.
Similar trends can be seen among men, but at a lesser scale, with a decline of 16.9%
in the black/white incarceration ratio over the decade. The disparity between
Hispanic and non Hispanic white men declined by 11.1%
SLOWING GROWTH IN INCARCERATION
Beginning in the early 1970s the United States embarked on an unprecedented
escalation of the use of imprisonment. The 2.2 million people behind bars in prisons
and jails in 2010 represented more than a 500% increase from the level of 1972.
During the highest growth years in the 1980s, state prison populations increased by
as much as 12% in a single year. Nationally, the rate of prison growth of earlier decades slowed consi
derably in the first decade of this century. The total number of individuals in state prisons rose by
an average of 1.1% per year and in federal prisons by an average of 3.3% between
2000 and 2010, compared to 5.6% and 8.6% respectively in the 1990s.
The substantial growth of the 1990s is best seen in states such as Texas, in which the
number of persons under state prison jurisdiction tripled, as well as in ten states in
which the population more than doubled (Appendix Table 1). Overall, the median
change in the number of people in state prison systems was 71% for the 1990s. In
contrast, from 2000 to 2010 the median increase declined to 21%, with only three
states experiencing more than a 50% rise in their populations. Further, five states
Delaware,Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York had fewer people in
their prisons at the end of the decade and 47 states experienced at least one year of
While reduced crime rates are likely to have contributed to these declines, deliberate
changes in policy and practice are also playing a role in these reductions in some
These include initiatives such as treatment diversion programs, sentence
reduction incentives for participation in prison programming, enhanced reentry
support, and reduced technical violations of parole.