While Black Americans remain vastly overrepresented in the prison population, a new report found that the disparity widens among those serving lengthy sentences.
The Sentencing Project found that in 2019, Black Americans represented 14% of the total U.S. population, 33% of the total prison population and 46% of the prison population who had already served at least 10 years.
In its extensive research, the organization discovered that the over-representation of people of color magnifies further among those serving even longer sentences in some jurisdictions.
For example, three-quarters of Californians serving over 15 years in prison are people of color – 69% are Black or Latinx.
In Washington, D.C., 96% of those serving 15 years or longer sentences in 2020 were Black men.
In Texas, Black people represented 34% of the total prison population in 2020 but 45% of people with 25 or more years served in 2021.
“The over-representation of Black Americans among the prison population serving lengthy sentences stems in part from racial disparities in serious criminal offending,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project and co-author of the new report.
Tackling this problem requires significantly ramping up crime preventative interventions in areas with concentrated urban poverty, Ghandnoosh stated.
She added that it’s no small feat given that the public’s association of crime with people of color lends support for more punitive approaches to public safety.
“Biased criminal justice policies and practices exacerbate the over-representation of Black Americans among those serving lengthy prison terms,” Ghandnoosh asserted.
The report, headlined “How Many People are Spending Over a Decade in Prison,” revealed that more than 260,000 people in U.S. prisons had already been incarcerated for at least 10 years in 2019, comprising 19% of the prison population.
Further, nearly three times as many people – over 770,000 – were serving sentences of 10 years or longer.
Researchers said the figures represented a dramatic growth from 2000 when mass incarceration was already well underway.
The Sentencing Project reported that the United States remains an outlier among western democracies in its heavy and growing reliance on lengthy prison terms.
For example, in Germany, for all but 0.01% of prison sentences, officials have abolished the maximum sentence length of 15 years and life-without-parole and death sentences.
In contrast, U.S. policies responded to a far higher homicide rate by prioritizing punishment rather than prevention, Ghandnoosh stated.
One-in-seven people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence and nearly half of U.S. states maintain the death penalty, with some continuing to carry out executions.
“Extreme sentences are so common in America that 10 years behind bars can seem like a relatively short imprisonment,” Ghandnoosh said. “But it’s an incredibly long period – one in which people can experience profound change. After a decade of imprisonment, many incarcerated people mature, take accountability for their actions, and acquire skills to support their successful re-entry.”
“Unfortunately, people with excessive sentences are rarely allowed to show how they have changed and have their sentences re-evaluated. That’s a major flaw in our legal system.”
The author noted that several legislatures and prosecutors’ offices have begun reducing lengthy prison terms, such as by scaling back truth-in-sentencing requirements and implementing second-look reforms which allow for reconsideration of imposed sentences.
These efforts reflect growing awareness that ending mass incarceration and tackling its racial disparities require scaling back long sentences, Ghandnoosh offered.
To further align criminal justice laws and policies with evidence on public safety, The Sentencing Project recommends downsizing the inflated sentencing structure by repealing mandatory minimum sentences and scaling back sentencing guidelines – and applying these reforms retroactively.
Regarding racial inequity in lengthy prison terms, Ghandnoosh suggests eliminating criminal legal sources of disparity such as pretrial detention, underfunded public defense, biased prosecutorial decision-making, sentencing enhancements related to criminal histories, and biased parole decision-making.
“Develop racial impact statements forecasting the impact of both proposed and existing criminal laws on different populations,” Ghandnoosh said. “We must dramatically increase investments in effective violence prevention and interruption interventions outside the criminal legal system.”