As Covid roared through prisons in 2020, the U.S. prison population fell by as much as 30 percent, creating the largest, fastest reduction in prison population in American history. But this decarceration disproportionately benefited white incarcerated people, sharply increasing the fraction of incarcerated Black and Latino people. A new study in Nature shows that this increased racial disparity in U.S. prisons stems in large part from a long-standing problem with the justice system: Non-white people tend to get longer sentences than white people for the same crimes.
The study, published on April 19 and co-authored by SFI External Professors Brandon Ogbunu (Yale University), Tina Eliassi-Rad (Northeastern University), and Sam Scarpino (Northeastern University), with others, explores the complex dynamics behind this disparity, which both highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities in the prison system.
The prison population as a whole fell for two main reasons: almost all courts shut down, reducing the admission rate by 70 percent; and prisoners were released in response to the pandemic. But in most states, the released prisoners were not disproportionately white. Instead, the primary driver of the disparity was more subtle. With fewer prisoners coming in over the course of the pandemic and with white prisoners disproportionately serving shorter sentences, the population skewed Black and Latino.
“These disparities in sentencing have long been the object of criticism, and this shows how such problems can ramify in unexpected ways,” Brandon Ogbunu says. “It has a lot of consequences and ripple effects through the criminal legal system.”
In addition, with the courts closed, prosecutors pushed hard to get pre-trial plea deals so that cases could be completed anyway. Studies show that plea deals result in a disproportionate number of Black defendants spending time in prison.
“You had a lot of individuals who were left behind in prison and thus had a higher chance of being infected by COVID during the pandemic,” Ogbunu says. “That means this is also a public health issue, and even a human rights issue. The pandemic acted like a stress test for the criminal legal system, and that stress test revealed these disparities.”
A third dynamic played a role too: While Black and Latino individuals continue to be incarcerated at higher rates than whites, that disproportion has been steadily falling over the last ten years, with a greater percentage of whites being incarcerated. So, while Blacks are overrepresented by a factor of six in the general prison population, they are only overrepresented by a factor of two in new admissions. Decreasing the flow of new admissions thus increased the non-white population.
These deep structural problems are particularly urgent at this moment, says co-author Brennan Klein (Northeastern University). “There is, right now, a large backlog of cases in the criminal legal system still left over from the delays during the early stages of the pandemic. It forces us to immediately consider the disparities in sentencing in our legal system and work towards reforms that bring a more equitable and just system.”
Because most prisons don’t automatically make their data public, “the data curation aspect is really one of the great marvels of this project,” Ogbunu says. The team scoured websites from around the country and filed reams of Freedom of Information requests for prison records from 2018 through 2021. They’ve made the data public so that other teams can look for additional patterns within it.
“The dream for this is that people will actually be released from prison,” says Scarpino. “Of course, that’s going to require lawyers to make the case and judges to decide. But we demonstrate that sentencing is unjust, and that means that there are people who are incarcerated who would not be if they had a different skin color. My expectation and hope is that this will inspire a growing movement around doing these population-level analyses to begin to remediate this kind of racial injustice in mass incarceration.”
Read the paper “COVID-19 amplified racial disparities in the US criminal legal system”in Nature (April 19, 2023). doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-05980-2