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In the year since Michael Brown was killed, Americans have focused their attention on the harsh treatment of black Americans at the hands of police. A shocking number have been killed in encounters with police, in the year since Ferguson and in the years before. Thousands more have suffered subtler forms of discrimination in the criminal justice system, where social science research shows striking racial disparities at nearly every level—from arrest rates, to bail amounts, to sentence lengths, to probation hearing outcomes. We combed a vast body of research to find the clearest indicators of racial disparities at different phases of the justice process. The eight charts below offer a grim portrait of what it’s like to be a black American in our nation’s justice system.

1. Black Americans are more likely to have their cars searched.

Police are three times as likely to search the cars of stopped black drivers than stopped white drivers, as the chart below, based on data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, illustrates. Nationally, black drivers are also more likely to be pulled over and less likely to receive a reason for being stopped. In one Rhode Island study, black drivers were stopped more even though they were less likely to receive a citation.


Source: The Washington Post. All charts by Derreck Johnson.

2. Black Americans are more likely to be arrested for drug use.

Police arrest black Americans for drug crimes at twice the rate of whites, according to federal data, despite the fact that whites use drugs at comparable rates and sell drugs at comparable or even higher rates.


Source: Bureau of Justic Statistics

3. Black Americans are more likely to be jailed while awaiting trial.

2014 study in New York City showed that blacks were more likely than whites or nonblack minorities to be in jail while they await trial, even after controlling for the seriousness of charges and prior record. Other research suggests that this disparity is often due to the fact that black defendants cannot afford to pay bail. The temporary incarceration stigmatizes the defendant, disrupts family life and employment, and makes it harder for the defendant to prepare a defense. In the chart below, “jail” refers to defendants who were offered bail but could not post it; “remanded” refers to defendants who were not given the option of posting bail.


Source: Vera Institute of Justice

4. Black Americans are more likely to be offered a plea deal that includes prison time.

The same study in New York found that black defendants are more likely to be offered plea deals that include prison time than whites or nonblack minorities. Even after controlling for many factors, including the seriousness of charges and prior record, blacks were 13 percent more likely than whites to be offered such deals.


Source: Vera Institute of Justice

5. Black Americans may be excluded from juries because of their race.


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Researchers found that North Carolina prosecutors were excluding black people from juries in capital cases at twice the rate of other jurors, even when controlling for legitimate justifications for striking jurors, such as employment status or reservations about the death penalty. Other studies have shown that excluding black people from juries can influence deliberations and  verdicts. For example, black defendants in capital cases with white victims are less likely to receive a death sentence if there is a black juror.


Source: Barbara O’Brien and Catherine M. Grosso, “Report on Jury Selection Study” (2011)

6. Black Americans are more likely to serve longer sentences than white Americans for the same offense.

2012 working paper found “robust evidence” that black male federal defendants were given longer sentences than comparable whites. Black men’s sentences were, on average, 10 percent longer than those of their white peers. This is partly explained by the fact that prosecutors are about twice as likely to file charges against blacks that carry mandatory minimum sentences than against whites.


Source: M. Marit Rehavi & Sonja B. Starr, “Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Charging and Its Sentencing Consequences” (2012)

7. Black Americans are more likely to be disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.

Most U.S. states restrict the voting rights of citizens convicted of crimes. Since black Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, voter disenfranchisement has a disproportionate effect on the black population. According to recent estimates from the Sentencing Project, 2.5 percent of all Americans are disenfranchised due to a current or past felony conviction. For blacks, the figure is 7.7 percent, or about 1 in 13.


Source: The Sentencing Project

8. Black Americans are more likely to have their probation revoked.

Black convicts have their probation revoked more often than whites and other minorities, according to a recent study of probation outcomes in Iowa, New York, Oregon, and Texas. These racial disparities held even when the study controlled for other characteristics of the probationers, such as their age, crime severity, and criminal history. In the chart below, the “unexplained” portion of each bar is the level of racial disparity that could not be explained by nonracial characteristics.


Source: The Urban Institute

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