African American Men and the Criminal Justice System

Why a disproportionate amount of Black men are in prison

Alcatraz Prison
A disproportionate amount of black men are in prison. Alexander C. Kafka/Flickr

Is the criminal justice system hopelessly rigged against Black men, leading to a disproportionate amount of them ending up in prison? This question surfaced repeatedly after July 13, 2013, when a Florida jury acquitted neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman shot Martin after trailing him around a gated community because he viewed the Black teen, who wasn’t involved in any wrongdoing, as suspicious.

Whether Black men are victims, perpetrators or simply going about their day, civil rights activists say they don’t get a fair shake in the U.S. legal system. Black men, for example, are more likely to receive stiffer sentences for their crimes, including the death penalty, than others do. They are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men, according to the Washington Post. Nearly 1 in 12 Black men age 25-54 are incarcerated, compared to 1 in 60 non-black men, 1 in 200 Black women and 1 in 500 non-Black women, the New York Times reported

In a number of the nation’s biggest cities, Black men are more likely to be treated as criminals and stopped and frisked by police without cause than any other group. The statistics below, compiled largely by ThinkProgress, further illuminate the experiences of African American men in the criminal justice system.

Black Minors at Risk

The discrepancies in the punishments Black and white offenders receive can even be found among minors. According to the National Council on Crime And Deliquency, Black youth referred to juvenile court are likelier to be incarcerated or wind up in adult court or prison than white youth. Blacks make up roughly 30 percent of juvenile arrests and referrals to juvenile court as well as 37 percent of incarcerated juveniles, 35 percent of juveniles sent to criminal court and 58 percent of juveniles sent to adult prisons.

The term “school to prison pipeline” was created to illustrate how the criminal justice system paves a pathway to prison for Blacks when African Americans are still very young. The Sentencing Project has found that Black males born in 2001 have a 32 percent chance of being incarcerated at some point. In contrast, white males born that year have only a six percent chance of winding up in prison.

Disparities Between Black and White Drug Users

While Blacks make up 13 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of monthly drug users, they comprise 34 percent of individuals arrested for drug offenses and more than half (53 percent) of individuals imprisoned for drug-related offenses, according to the American Bar Association. In other words, Black drug users are four times more likely to end up in prison than white drug users. Differences in the way the criminal justice system treats Black drug offenders and white drug offenders became especially clear when sentencing laws required crack-cocaine users to receive much stiffer penalties than powder-cocaine users. That’s because, at the height of its popularity, crack-cocaine was most popular among Blacks in the inner city, while powder-cocaine was most popular among whites.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which helped to erase some of the sentencing disparities related to cocaine.

A Quarter of Young Black Men Report Police Mistreatment

Gallup interviewed roughly 4,400 adults from June 13 to July 5, 2013, for its Minority Rights and Relations poll about police interactions and racial profiling. Gallup found that 24 percent of Black men between the ages of 18 and 34 felt they had been mistreated by police during the past month. Meanwhile, 22 percent of Blacks from ages 35 to 54 felt the same and 11 percent of Black males older than age 55 agreed. These numbers are significant given that many people have absolutely no dealings with police in a month-long period. The fact that the young Black men polled had contact with police and roughly a quarter felt the authorities had mistreated them during these encounters indicates that racial profiling remains a serious issue for African Americans.

Race and the Death Penalty

A number of studies have shown that race influences the likelihood a defendant will receive the death penalty. In Harris County, Texas, for example, the District Attorney’s Office was more than three times as likely to pursue the death penalty against Black defendants than their white counterparts, according to an analysis released in 2013 by University of Maryland criminology professor Ray Paternoster. There is also bias regarding the race of victims in death penalty cases. While Blacks and whites suffer from homicides at about the same rate, the New York Times reports, 80 percent of those executed murdered white people. Such statistics make it easy to understand why African Americans in particular feel that they are not treated fairly by the authorities or in the courts.

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Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "African American Men and the Criminal Justice System." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, July 31). African American Men and the Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "African American Men and the Criminal Justice System." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).