Bad news about race and criminal justice is all around us. Relative to white people, black people receive longer sentences for the same crimes, are treated more disrespectfully by police in routine interactions and are more likely to be shot by police during confrontations. And of course, black people are overrepresented in the nation’s incarcerated population. So pervasive and long-standing are these problems — especially mass incarceration — that they dominate the broader narrative about law enforcement and race in the United States.
Yet even on this bleak front, there not only can be good news; there is good news. Specifically: The imprisonment rate for African Americans is falling, has been falling since 2001 and now stands at its lowest level in more than a quarter-century.
These remarkable data are hidden in plain sight, in the latest annual statistical survey of prisoners issued last week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Comparing 2017 survey results with prior years shows that the African American male imprisonment rate has dropped by a third since its peak and is now at a level not seen since 1991. African American women’s rate of imprisonment has dropped 57 percent from its peak and is now at a 30-year low.
How big a change does this represent? Had African American imprisonment held steady at its highest point (2001 for men, 1999 for women) instead of declining, about 300,000 more African Americans would be in prison right now. Instead they are free to live in the community, to raise families, to hold jobs, to be healthy and happy.
Dramatic failures command attention and therefore often drive efforts at policy reform and innovation. Yet success can be just as informative. It’s just as vital to understand why black imprisonment rates have fallen as it was to understand why they rose. Yet, so far, there is still more discussion about the latter than the former.
It’s time for the debate to catch up with the data. Collapsing crime rates in black neighborhoods surely reduced imprisonment rates, but how did that increase in public safety come about? Did programs to make policing and sentencing more equitable also contribute? Do prisoner reentry programs deserve any credit for reducing incarceration, and if so, which ones? What is being done right that should be expanded to accelerate the positive trends?
Obviously, there is a risk of feeding complacency in taking note of — and celebrating — the decrease in black imprisonment. Yet to do otherwise risks feeding defeatism in the face of clear evidence that progress is possible. It also would miss an opportunity to break down racist myths: The declining imprisonment rate for African Americans definitively rebuts any notion of intractable black criminality.
What’s more, objective reporting has independent value. The public needs to know that, contrary to what’s implied in much media and academic discussion of the issue, it is not true that mass incarceration is still proceeding apace, with an increasingly disproportionate impact on African Americans. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics data shows that incarceration overall retreated by 10 percent over the past decade, with the black rate of decline outpacing that of whites.
Undeniably, today’s still-high and still-disproportionate rate of black imprisonment represents the appalling legacy of institutional racism. Equally undeniably, the continuing presence of about 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons poses a challenge to public policy and the nation’s conscience.
But in important respects, the situation is getting better. We need to say so: The nation’s reformers could use the recognition and the inspiration.