Are efforts to reduce incarceration inadvertently increasing racial disparities?

Recent policy reforms in some states have successfully reduced mass incarceration. But have these reforms affected the racial composition of who is in prison?

Our team at the Possibility Lab examined whether and how reform efforts aimed at reversing mass incarceration have affected the racial composition of people in America’s prisons and jails. In detailed national data compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice, we find substantial variation in state prison population changes from 2005 to 2018, with increases in some states and declines in others. Although declines in the overall state prison population were associated with declines for all groups, states with rising prison populations experienced slight upticks in prison rates among the white population, while rates among Black and Latinx populations declined. As a result, greater progress in overall decarceration did not translate to larger reductions in racial disparities.

We also explored the impact of one major state policy reform on racial disparities in imprisonment: California’s historic criminal justice reform, called Public Safety Realignment (AB109). Like other decarceration policies enacted in recent years, the goal of AB109 was to reduce incarceration for certain low-level offenses. In its first year following implementation, AB109 reduced the prison population by nearly 30,000. However, we find that its benefits were not experienced equally across racial/ethnic groups. Specifically, in data from the California Department of Justice we find that Black people were twice as likely as other groups to have prior convictions that disqualified them from serving sentences locally under AB109 instead of in state prison. Moreover, once we include incarceration to jail, we find that racial disparities in total imprisonment increased following reform. Our results point to the need for criminal justice reforms to account for the long history of racially disproportionate punishment that persists through criminal histories. Hinging eligibility on prior convictions will likely favor white Americans in contexts across the United States where, like California, criminal histories vary across racial groups.

This project was made possible with funding by the National Institute of Justice’s W.E.B Du Bois Research Fellowship and data shared by the Vera Institute of Justice and the California Department of Justice.


Data Set

Vera Institute of Justice

Working Paper

How hinging eligibility for reforms on criminal history favors white Americans: The case of California’s public safety realignment

Journal Article

The Downside of Downsizing: The Persistence of Racial Disparities Following State Prison Reform

Policy Brief

Examining Racial Disparities in California Criminal Record Clearance

Our Work