Data provided by PrisonStudies.org is helping shed light on America’s incarceration problem, demonstrating that only the small archipelago of Seychelles, located in the Indian Ocean off East Africa, has a higher incarceration rate than the U.S. But when studied carefully, the rates demonstrate yet another trend: America’s white prison population has been increasing in recent years while the number of blacks in prison has been dropping — and nobody is talking about it.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, America holds “more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails.” And while the racial disparities in the American justice system are well reported — especially considering one in every five people in jail is arrested for breaking drug-related laws — we are seldom asked to review imprisonment rates among other ethnic groups.
Data provided by the U.S. Department of Justice shows 0.5 percent of white U.S. residents were in prison in December 2013, placing the rate of incarceration among whites in America at 466 per 100,000 citizens.
When compared to the incarceration rates of other countries without regard for other ethnic groups, the rate of white prisoners in America is still higher than most. At 466 per 100,000 citizens in jail, America still has a place in the top ten list of countries with the largest prison population in the world if only the white population is taken into account.
Despite the trend, the media seldom discusses the high incarceration rate among whites.
In an article published earlier this year by the Washington Post, Keith Humphreys writes that “[t]here’s been a big decline in the black incarceration rate [in America], and almost nobody’s paying attention.”
In the article, Humphreys suggests that as the overall number of prisoners drops, the biggest winners are members of the black community. But hidden in plain sight is the new trend: the growth of incarceration rates among whites, both female and male.
According to the Washington Post article, the rate of incarceration among white women went from 34 per 100,000 in 2000 to 53 per 100,000 people in 2014. Among the black female community, 205 out of 100,000 were imprisoned in 2000 while nearly half that number (109 per 100,000) were imprisoned in 2014.
Among the black male population, 3,457 inmates per 100,000 people were imprisoned in 2000 while in 2014, there were 2,724 black inmates per 100,000 people. In 2000, there were 449 white inmates per 100,000 citizens while in 2014, the rate increased slightly with 465 inmates per 100,000.
Though rates of incarceration among the black population are still higher than other groups, the number of white prisoners has grown considerably over the past 15 years, prompting experts in the area to attempt to identify the causes behind the shift.
To Pew Charitable Trusts’ Adam Gelb, the director of the organization’s public safety performance project, “changes in drug use and enforcement over the past 15 years” could be responsible for this demographic shift.
“Methamphetamine, prescription opioid, and heroin epidemics have affected whites more than did the crack cocaine epidemic,” reported the Washington Post. In the 1980s and 1990s, incarceration rates among blacks increased because of the crack cocaine epidemic, a phenomenon that may be repeating itself now among whites.
But whether blacks, Latinos or whites go to jail more often is far from the most important point one should take from the data at hand. Instead, one should look into how the drug war has been exploited by law enforcement, placing a great number of low-level, nonviolent offenders in jail — at times for life — over drug-related laws.