Are Blacks and Hispanics Disproportionately Incarcerated Relative to Their Arrests? Racial and Ethnic Disproportionality Between Arrest and Incarceration

Casey T. Harris, Darrell Steffensmeier, Jeffrey T. Ulmer, Noah Painter-Davis

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46 Scopus citations


Do large racial and ethnic disparities in prison populations reflect systematic racial and policy discrimination in the criminal justice system, or do they reflect disproportionate involvement of blacks and Hispanics in "serious" or street crime? Our investigation of this question keys off the approach initiated by Alfred Blumstein is his pioneering studies on the topic. While yielding important findings, there are, however, substantial gaps in the empirical literature on the racial disproportionality issue. We attempt to fill those gaps by (1) using both data on prison admission as well as in-stock prison populations, (2) presenting more recent racially and ethnically disaggregated arrest and incarceration data from Pennsylvania for 2003-2007, and (3) including Hispanic offenders in our racial and ethnic disproportionality comparisons. Our results indicate, first, that the representation of blacks, whites, and Hispanics among offenders admitted to state prison and in the prison population corresponds closely to their representation in arrest statistics. Second, using arrests as a marker of violent offending, the overrepresentation of blacks among offenders admitted to state prisons occurs because they commit a disproportionate number of frequently imprisoned (i. e., violent) crimes. Third, for those offenses where there is a within-race difference between arrest and incarceration representation, Hispanics experience the greatest disadvantage. Fourth, failing to account for Hispanics in white and black estimates tends to inflate white proportions and deflate black proportions of arrests, admissions, and prison population estimates, masking the "true" black and white racial disproportionality. We conclude that while there is a need for continued concern with possible racial discrimination in justice system processing, this concern should not distract attention from what arguably is the more important matter-ameliorating the social environmental conditions that foster disproportionate minority (especially black) involvement in violent crime.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)187-199
Number of pages13
JournalRace and Social Problems
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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