Young Black Men and the Criminal Justice System:
A Growing National Problem
By Marc Mauer
The Sentencing Project
This report was written by Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project.
The author wishes to thank the following for reviewing the manuscript and offering many
helpful suggestions: Adjoa Aiyetoro (National Prison Project), Frank Cullen (University of
Cincinnati), Timothy Flanagan (SUNY at Albany), Douglas McDonald (Abt Associates), Bernard
Meltzer (Central Michigan University), Harry Mika (Central Michigan University), William
Sabol (University of Maryland), Richard Seltzer (Howard University). Lawrence Greenfeld of
the Bureau of Justice Statistics provided much assistance in obtaining the basic data used
in the report. All opinions and conclusions, of course, remain the sole responsibility of
The Sentencing Project is a national, non-profit organization which promotes sentencing
reform and the development of alternative sentencing programs. The Sentencing Project
receives major support from The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the Public Welfare
Copyright © 1990, The Sentencing Project
For further information, contact:
The Sentencing Project
918 F Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
YOUNG BLACK MEN AND THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM:
A GROWING NATIONAL PROBLEM
For close to two decades, the criminal justice system in the United States has
been undergoing a tremendous expansion. Beginning in 1973, the number of prisoners,
criminal justice personnel, and taxpayer dollars spent has increased dramatically, with
new record highs now being reached each year. Between 1973 and 1988, the number of felons
in state and federal prisons almost tripled from 204,000 to 603,000. By 1989, the total
inmate population in our nation's prisons and jails had passed the one million mark.
Record numbers of persons are also being placed under probation or parole supervision.
These aspects of the criminal justice system are sometimes overlooked when the problems of
prison and jail populations and overcrowding are explored.
The extended reach of the criminal justice system has been far from uniform in its effects
upon different segments of the population. Although the number of women prisoners has
increased in recent years at a more rapid pace than men, the criminal justice system as a
whole still remains overwhelmingly male approximately 87 percent. And, as has been true
historically, but even more so now, the criminal justice system disproportionately engages
minorities and the poor.
Impact of the Criminal Justice System
This report looks at the impact of the criminal justice system as a whole on the
new generation of adults those people in the 2029 age group. In particular, it examines
the devastating impact that the criminal justice system has had on the lives of young
Black men and Black communities.
This report does not attempt to explain whether or why Blacks are disproportionately
involved in the criminal justice system. Other studies have attempted to document whether
Black males commit more crimes or different types of crimes than other groups, or whether
they are merely treated more harshly for their crimes by the criminal justice system.
Instead, this report looks at the end result of that large-scale involvement in the
criminal justice system, and highlights the implications this raises for crime control
Using data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Bureau of the Census, we have
calculated the rates at which different segments of the 2029 age group come under the
control of the criminal justice system. The analysis looks at the total number of persons
in state and federal prisons, jails, probation, and parole, and compares rates of criminal
justice control by race, sex, and ethnicity. Because of the unavailability of complete
data in some categories of the analysis, the total rates of control should not be
considered exact calculations, but rather, close approximations of the numbers of persons
in the system. As described in "Methodology," in all cases where data were
lacking, conservative assumptions were used in making calculations. (Sufficient data were
not available to analyze criminal justice control rates for Native Americans or Asian
Our findings, as displayed in Tables 1 and 2, are as follows:
· Almost one in four (23 percent) Black men in the age group 2029 is either in prison,
jail, on probation, or parole on any given day.
· For white men in the age group 2029, one in 16 (6.2 percent) is under the control of
the criminal justice system.
· Hispanic male rates fall between these two groups, with one in 10 (10.4 percent within
the criminal justice system on any given day).
· Although the number of women in the criminal justice system is much lower than for men,
the racial disproportions are parallel. For women in their twenties, relative rates of
criminal justice control are:
Black women one in 37 (2.7 percent)
White women one in 100 (1 percent)
Hispanic women one in 56 (1.8 percent)
· The number of young Black men under the control of the criminal justice system
609,690 is greater than the total number of Black men of all ages enrolled
in college 436,000 as of 1986. For white males, the comparable figures are 4,600,000 total
in higher education and 1,054,508 ages 2029 in the criminal justice system.
· Direct criminal justice control costs for these 609,690 Black men are $2.5 billion a
· Although crime rates increased by only 2 percent in the period 1979-88, the number of
prison inmates doubled during that time.
These findings actually understate the impact of present policies upon Black males
ages 2029. This is because the analysis presented here covers criminal justice control
rates for a single day in mid1989. Since all components of the criminal justice
system admit and release persons each day, though, the total number of persons processed
through the system in a given year is substantially higher than the single day counts. For
this reason, the proportion of young Black men processed by the criminal justice system over
the course of a year would be even higher than one in four.
Implications for Social Policy
The findings of this study, particularly those pertaining to young Black men,
should be disturbing to all Americans. Whatever the causes of crime be they individual or
societal we now have a situation where one in four Black men of the new adult generation
is under the control of the criminal justice system.
The implications of this analysis for social policy both within and outside the criminal
justice system are farreaching:
1. Impact on the life prospects for Black males
The repercussions of these high rates of criminal justice control upon young Black men
are greater than their immediate loss of freedom. Few would claim that today's overcrowded
corrections systems do much to assist offenders in becoming productive citizens after
release. Despite the ideal that offenders can "pay their debt to society," the
fact is that most carry the stigma of being exoffenders for some time to come. Thus, given
these escalating rates of control, we risk the possibility of writing off an entire
generation of Black men from having the opportunity to lead productive lives in our
2. Impact on the Black community
For the Black community in general, nearly onefourth of its young men are under the
control of the criminal justice system at a time when their peers are beginning families,
learning constructive life skills, and starting careers. The consequences of this
situation for family and community stability will be increasingly debilitating. Unless the
criminal justice system can be used to assist more young Black males in pursuing these
objectives, any potential positive contributions they can make to the community will be
delayed, or lost forever.
A particularly ominous trend further emphasizes this point. At the same time that an
increasing proportion of Black males ages 2029 have come under the control of the criminal
justice system, Black male college enrollment fell by 7 percent in the decade from 197686.
The cumulative effect of these separate measures is that fewer Black males are being
prepared to assume leadership roles in their community.
3. Failure of the "get tough" approach to crime control
In many respects, the past decade can be viewed as an "experiment" in the
"get tough" approach to crime. Proponents of this policy contend that cracking
down on crime through increased arrests, prosecutions, and lengthy sentences will have a
deterrent effect on potential lawbreakers. Yet even with a tripling of the prison
population since 1973, at tremendous financial cost, victimization rates since that time
have declined less than 5 percent.
4. Implications for the "war on drugs"
National drug policy director William Bennett's drug strategy similarly emphasizes a
law enforcement approach to a social problem. This approach is likely to result in even
higher rates of incarceration for Blacks and Hispanics since drug law enforcement is
largely targeted against "crack," more often used by low-income Blacks and
Hispanics. As drug offenders make up an increasing share of the prison population, the
non-white prison population will become disproportionately larger. In Florida, for
example, Blacks inmates now make up 73.3 percent of all drug offenders, compared to 53.6
percent of prison admissions for other offenses.
The Bennett proposal to lock up more offenders is hardly a novel one. For more than twenty
years, politicians have campaigned on this basic platform. A continued emphasis on law
enforcement at the expense of prevention and treatment has little hope of achieving
5. Strategies for more effective criminal justice policies and programs
While the reasons why Black men enter into the criminal justice system are complex and
need to be addressed with longterm vision, there are immediate opportunities for change
through the criminal justice system. The goals of such changes should be to reduce the
harm caused by the system and to reduce the likelihood of offenders returning to the
system. The outlines of such a strategy are as follows:
· Divert as many youthful, minor and firsttime offenders as possible from the criminal
justice system entirely. Diversion programs, dispute resolution processes, counseling and
other more satisfactory means for modifying offensive behavior could be used more
frequently than they are now.
· Reverse the trend to "criminalize" socially undesirable acts and to increase
criminal penalties as a means of controlling public behavior. Mandatory and lengthy prison
terms add to correctional populations, but do little to reduce crime.
· Jail and prison should be sanctions of last resort for offenders who cannot be diverted
from the system. A range of communitybased sentencing options exist which are less costly
and more effective than incarceration. More could be made available through legislative
appropriations. These include:
- restitution to victims
- community service
- intensive probation supervision
- treatment programs
- employment and education
- community corrections programs
· Utilize the sentencing process the one point in the system when there is the
opportunity to craft a meaningful response to the needs of victims, offenders, and the
community to counteract the trend toward increasing criminal justice control over Black
males. This can be accomplished by individual judges adopting constructive alternatives
and by developing true rehabilitative programs designed to reverse current correctional
6. The need for a broad approach to crime and crime control
The problem of crime is one that can not be solved entirely by the criminal justice
system. Even with the most resourceful police, prosecutors, judges, and corrections
officials, the criminal justice system is designed to be only a reactive system,
not one of prevention.
At the same time that the nation has engaged in a criminal justice control strategy over
the past decade, funding to address the conditions that contribute to crime has declined.
While the criminal justice system has processed young Black men in great numbers, the
official unemployment rate for Black men ages 1624 remains at 24 percent. (Adding the
numbers of persons discouraged from or not "officially" in the labor market
would result in a significantly higher figure.) It is time now to "experiment"
in crime control by attacking those social factors that many believe provide a more direct
link to crime, such as unemployment, poverty, and substance abuse.
The problem of crime is a complex one and will not be resolved overnight. Rather
than viewing the solution as hopeless or too longterm, though, there are real and
immediate actions which can be taken to prevent the next generation of Black males from
further swelling the ranks of correctional populations.
Some of these steps involve a change in priorities and emphasis within the criminal
justice system. Programs and policies exist in jurisdictions around the country which
offer models of more constructive resolution of criminal justice problems.
Addressing the conditions which lead to crime in the first place is a broad agenda which
requires serious thought, attention, and action. The decisions made today, though, in the
areas of policy, programs, and funding, will determine whether the criminal justice system
exerts as much control over the next generation of Black males as it does for the current
The data on which these calculations are made are taken from reports of the Bureau
of Justice Statistics of the Department of Justice, the Bureau of the Census, and the
Department of Education. A breakdown of the incarcerated population by age, sex, and race
was available for state prison inmates (1986) and jail inmates (1983). Data on sex and
race, but not age, were available for federal prisoners, probationers, and parolees (all
1986). Data for the age distribution for state prisoners and jail inmates were used to
develop a ratio of the proportion of each group of prisoners (i.e. male and female whites,
Blacks, and Hispanics) in the 2029 age group. These proportions were as follows: White
Males 49.6%; Black Males 52.4%; Hispanic Males 51.6%; White Females 52.7%; Black Females
52.8%; Hispanic Females 60.0%.
This ratio was then used to develop estimates by age for federal prisoners, probationers,
and parolees. While parolees and federal prisoners are probably older on average than the
state prison population, probationers are probably younger. The greater number of
probationers would therefore make the overall estimate of the 2029 age group a
conservative one. While some margin of error is inevitable in these estimates, it seems
reasonable to assume that it is not of a substantial nature.
Rates of criminal justice control were then developed for all parts of the system for 1986
(except for 1983 figures for jail). These figures were then extrapolated to June 1989,
based on the percentage increase for each component of the system. The most recent overall
population figures available were: state and federal prisons June 1989; jails June 1987;
probation and parole December 1988. Annual growth estimates of 5 percent for probation, 10
percent for parole, and 6 percent for jails, based on trends for the past two years, were
used to derive June 1989 population estimates based on the 1987 and 1988 data.
The use of overall population increases results in some additional margin of error in the
total population figures. For example, available data appear to indicate that the rate
of increase for prisoners for the period 198689 has been greater for Blacks, Hispanics,
and women than for the population as a whole. Reports also indicate that Blacks make up an
increasing share of the total number of drug arrests, a major source of the increasing
criminal justice populations. Therefore, the total criminal justice control rate for Black
males is probably understated in the calculations.
Cost figures for various components of the criminal justice system are those cited by the
Department of Justice in Report to the Nation on Crime and Justice: Second Edition,
1988. Many observers believe that current cost figures are substantially higher than those
presented here. For example, we have used the figure of $11,302 per year for state
prisoners in 1984 from the Report. Many current estimates for costs of
incarceration are in the range of $15,00025,000 per year.
Population figures within each category are based on Census Bureau estimates of the U.S.
As the available data for Hispanics are fairly limited in most instances, these results
should be interpreted with caution.
Austin, James and Aaron David McVey, "The Impact of the War on Drugs,"
National Council on Crime Delinquency, San Francisco, 1989.
Austin, James and Robert Tillman, "Ranking the Nation's Most Punitive States,"
National Council on Crime and Delinquency, San Francisco, 1988.
Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.
- Correctional Populations in the United States, 1986, February 1989
"Criminal Victimization 1986," October 1987
"Jail Inmates 1987," December 1988
"Prisoners in 1988," April 1989
"Probation and Parole 1988," November 1989
"Profile of State Prison Inmates, 1986," January 1988
Report to the Nation on Crime and Justice: Second Edition, March 1988
Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Current Population Survey," November 1989,
Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, Washington, D.C.
United States Populations Estimates by Age, Sex, and Race: 1980 to 1987, March 1988
Projections of the Population of the United States by Age, Sex, and Race: 1988 to 2080,
Estimated Hispanic Origin Population by Age and Sex, December 1987.
General Accounting Office, Prison Crowding: Issues Facing the Nation's Prison Systems,
November 1989, Washington, D.C.
Meddis, Sam, "Drug arrest rate is higher for blacks," USA Today, December
The Sentencing Project, "A Nation of One Million Prisoners," October 1989,
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, Washington,
D.C., "Trends in Minority Enrollment in Higher Education, Fall 1976Fall 1986,"
U.S. Department of Justice, "Prison Population Jumps 7.3 Percent in Six Months,"
September 10, 1989, Washington, D.C.
Wright, Erik Olin, The Politics of Punishment, Harper and Row, New York, 1973.