Exploring racial implications in prison reform

We have a great deal of evidence that racial biases were front and center in catalyzing the trend toward mass incarceration, but it is not immediately obvious whether and how race will feature into recent reform efforts reversing that trend. While a wide variety of recent reforms have been specifically designed to reduce the size of state prison populations, most are not explicitly aimed at simultaneously changing the prisoner composition. We examine both national and California data to ask: have recent reforms that were intended to downsize state prison populations also reduced the proportion of racial minorities serving time behind bars? Or, instead, have these reforms made gains in rolling back the size of the incarcerated population, while leaving racial disproportionalities largely intact?

Nationally, we find wide variation in incarceration trends; while some states have decreased incarceration, other states’ prison populations continue to climb. Moreover, while incarceration rates for African-Americans have declined, this has occurred in all states and is therefore does not appear to be a result of decarceration efforts specifically.

We then examine the racial effects of a single state policy aimed at decreasing the prison population in California: AB 109 (often referred to as Public Safety Realignment). As in the cross-state data, we find substantial racial differences. Specifically, Black Californians were more likely to have been charged with serious prior offenses that effectively excluded them from eligibility to avoid prison under the state’s reform.

Finally, we find substantial local-level variation in the implementation of AB 109. We estimate that if all arrests had been made in the most lenient county, there would have been 80% fewer prison sentences. By contrast, the state would have had nearly 150% more prison sentences if all arrests had been made in the county that was most punitive.

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