A large research literature has documented substantial racial and ethnic disparities at each stage of the criminal justice process. Black American, Latino, and Native American people have all been found to experience relatively high rates of arrest, pretrial detention, incarceration, and community supervision compared to White people. At the same time, community violence poses a significant risk to health and well-being for disadvantaged communities. Researchers have wrestled with the complex relationship between racial disparities in crime and disparities in criminal justice involvement. Racial inequality can drive disparities in both crime and system involvement; racial differences in criminal victimization, offending, and incarceration can further exacerbate racial inequality in socioeconomic life.
In 2020, the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened an expert ad hoc committee to review and assess the scientific evidence on how racial inequalities in criminal justice might be reduced through public policy. The Committee on Reducing Racial Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System was assembled to carry out this study and produce a consensus report. The committee reviewed and synthesized a diverse body of evidence from a variety of disciplines, including criminology, sociology, law, economics, psychology, history, and public policy, and it gathered public testimony from a variety of community participants in the course of three public workshops. Box S-1 includes key definitions and terminology derived from these efforts.
This report builds on the work of researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and community representatives who have been working to address racial inequality in the criminal justice system for decades. It was prepared
in the contemporary context of a global pandemic, the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, and subsequent protests against racial injustice. Moreover, gun violence—often concentrated in low-income Black communities—increased sharply in 2020 and 2021, posing an additional threat to racial equity. The current moment is thus marked by opportunity and urgency. The report offers an account of the research evidence that can inform the public conversation and the policy discussion over reducing racial inequality in the criminal justice system and advancing racial equity.
Given the complexity and deep historical roots of contemporary racial inequality in the United States, the committee has considered both policy reforms to the criminal justice system and policy reforms that address social, economic, and environmental conditions that give rise to inequalities in crime and justice. Criminal justice reforms that can reduce the scale of police stops and prison admissions, the duration of long sentences, and the duration and intensity of community supervision are likely to produce large absolute reductions in criminal justice involvement in minority communities. However, the criminal justice system does not operate in a vacuum, and reductions of criminal justice inequalities also depend in part on social and economic policy. Criminal justice reform can be buttressed by reducing the socioeconomic disadvantages that disproportionately increase the risks of criminal justice contact among the residents of low-income communities, who are disproportionately Black, Latino, or Native American. Given this context, the report considers both criminal justice reforms and alternative
strategies that lie outside the criminal justice system for reducing violence and other crime. The committee also found significant limitations in the available data and research evidence and offers recommendations for their development that might also help in overcoming racial inequality.
KEY TRENDS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE INEQUALITIES
Large racial and ethnic disparities exist across the several stages of criminal legal processing, including in arrests, in pretrial detention, and in sentencing and incarceration, with Black Americans and Native Americans typically experiencing the greatest criminal justice involvement. Despite this pattern, racial disparity in incarceration and the absolute size of the total correctional population (including prison, jail, probation, and parole) have substantially declined in the 12 years from 2008 to 2020. Nevertheless, large racial disparities in criminal justice involvement remain, and they are extremely high in some jurisdictions. Racial inequalities in the impacts of criminal justice contact on Black, Latino, and Native American communities also persist.
Key trends in criminal justice inequalities are detailed in Chapter 2 of this report. Here the committee highlights key data that informed its understanding of racial inequalities in the criminal justice system:
- Homicide victimization. With the exception of homicide victimization, racial disparities in victimization have narrowed considerably over the past three decades. However, racial disparities in homicide rates have grown wider since 2010, with Black Americans, American Indian people, and Latino people at higher risk of homicide victimization than White and Asian Americans. These disparities grew as overall homicide rates rose sharply during 2014 to 2016 and again from 2019 to the present.
- Police interactions and arrests. Police officers stop and search Black individuals at rates that are higher than for other racial and ethnic groups.
- Pretrial detention. Between 2005 and 2019, the rate of detention in jail, per-capita, was more than three times higher for Black Americans than for either White or Latino people. A growing literature attributes part of this racial disparity in jail populations to the common practice of requiring defendants to post cash bail in order to be released from jail between their preliminary hearings and the resolution of their cases.
- Sentencing and corrections. The absolute Black/White disparity in incarceration rates narrowed between 1999 and 2018, and the Black/White incarceration rate ratio also declined, from 6.23 to 4.24. Over
- this same period, the Latino-White incarceration rate differential narrowed, while the Latino/White incarceration rate ratio declined from 2.18 to 1.56. For American Indians, however, there was a widening in absolute as well as relative incarceration rates relative to White people, with the absolute incarceration rate differential increasing and the corresponding ratios increasing from 2.18 to 3.02.
- Community supervision. The probation population dropped by almost 20 percent between 2007 and 2019. Despite that drop, the racial makeup of the population under probation supervision changed little from 2007 to 2019.
THE DRIVERS OF RACIAL INEQUALITY IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Historical and Social Drivers of Racial Inequalities
Current racial inequalities in community violence and lethal criminal justice contacts are tied to historical and social processes of racial exclusion. The history of the criminal justice system in the United States is inextricably linked to the history of slavery and settler colonialism in early America, in which Black and Indigenous people—free, enslaved, and self-emancipated—were segregated, confined, and incarcerated. Inequalities in the criminal justice system in the contemporary period thus descend from a longer and larger history defined by processes of separation and social control in nonWhite communities (see Chapter 1).
Connections between historically rooted structural inequalities and racial disparities in crime and criminal justice system involvement can be seen in a variety of ways. For example, patterns of racial residential segregation, discriminatory housing policies, and spatially concentrated poverty are closely associated with high rates of serious violence in Black communities. Large American cities remain highly segregated by race, despite the nation’s growing diversity and the suburbanization of certain racial groups (e.g., Black Americans). Rising income inequality coupled with drivers of residential segregation, like racial discrimination in the housing market and racially structured residential preferences, perceptions, and knowledge, tend to foster concentrated racial disadvantage. Concentrated disadvantage and racial segregation also expose communities to toxic inequalities like lead exposure and airborne pollution, which themselves have been linked to crime and criminal justice contact. In this way, racial inequality gets into the minds and bodies of individuals from an early age, reinforcing disadvantages over the life course and driving criminal justice outcomes.
Social processes like these indicate how race-based contextual disadvantage—regardless of individual characteristics—continues to characterize the U.S. demographic landscape, allowing relatively few Black
or Native American children to grow up in environments that enable upward economic mobility. Indeed, very few White communities experience the concentrated disadvantage that typically confronts Black communities. Racial inequality in neighborhood environments is so deep that the most disadvantaged urban contexts in which White people reside are generally better off than the conditions of life in the most common context of Black communities. Neighborhood racial inequalities are multidimensional, compounded, enduring over the life course, and transmitted from one generation to the next. Singular or point-in-time policy interventions may therefore be ineffective at reducing inequalities that are entrenched in this way, and policy reforms to reduce racial inequality in crime and criminal justice involvement must tackle the contexts in which inequality emerges.
Racial disparities in serious violence—in both victimization and offending—are also spatially patterned, with high rates of violent crime being concentrated in communities that face longstanding and ongoing patterns of segregation and concentrated poverty. Segregation and neighborhood poverty themselves are closely associated with local pockets of joblessness, patterns of family complexity, disinvested infrastructure, a shortage of social services, and depleted collective efficacy, creating obstacles to safety while inviting policing and incarceration. Research indicates that these conditions of social structural disadvantage are highly correlated with violent crime.
In sum, both racial inequality in serious crime and criminal justice contact emerge in broader contexts of socio-economic inequality. Such contexts contribute to racial differences in criminal offending and criminal justice involvement. Eliminating racial inequalities in the criminal justice system will depend in part on addressing the legacy of historic inequalities and cumulative, racially based disadvantages over the life course. Criminal justice reforms are essential for reducing criminal justice inequalities, but their effects may be multiplied by addressing the societal inequalities in which the criminal justice system is embedded (see Chapter 3).
Criminal Justice Drivers of Racial Inequalities
Racial inequalities in neighborhood environments and crime combine with cumulative disadvantage through the stages of criminal processing to produce racial inequality in the criminal justice system and deepen structural racism in society more generally. Enduring and spatially concentrated patterns of racial inequality in residence, poverty, violent crime, and enforcement provide a context for racial inequality in criminal justice involvement. As a result, criminal justice system contact—including police stops, arrests, incarceration, and community supervision—tends to be highly spatially concentrated.
Socio-economic disparities, coupled with the bias of criminal justice officials and the routine operations of police and courtrooms that intensively regulate low-level offenses, generate large disparate impacts. Once individuals are ensnared in the criminal justice system, strong perpetuating effects continue criminal justice involvement and, in some cases, diminish life chances.
Three key processes are important contributors to this racial inequality in criminal justice involvement. First, the early stages of the system—including police stops, jail confinement, misdemeanor courts, and fines and fees—generate vast numbers of contacts (relative to White communities) between the police and courts on the one hand and Black, Latino, and Native American communities on the other. Second, sustained criminal justice involvement is produced through a cumulative process that may increase disparity with movement through the system. Third, the criminal justice system ensnares large segments of a disproportionately minority population on the front end for whom social problems related to concentrated poverty, including but not limited to serious crime, engender a criminal justice response involving arrest and penal control.
Criminal justice policies that broaden system surveillance and enforcement, combined with key points of discretion (for example, at arrest, pretrial detention, sentencing, parole release, and parole revocation), contribute to racial inequality by increasing the likelihood of criminal justice contact among low-income Black, Latino, and Native American populations. Moreover, criminal justice policies exacerbate the harm of criminal justice contact among these populations, particularly those who live in settings that have suffered the most harm from historical patterns of residential and economic exclusion based on race and ethnicity. These consequences extend to youth, for whom early exposure to policing in certain contexts has been associated with harmful outcomes in health and overall well-being.
Criminal processing—the sequence from police contact through arrest and incarceration—magnifies these preexisting inequalities. At each point, a person may be directed out of the system, treated more leniently, or treated more harshly. Racial disparities at each stage may compound across the system, creating greater racial inequality at the end, in imprisonment and re-imprisonment through parole revocation, than at the beginning with police contact.
A variety of institutional routines and decision points contribute to a system that casts a wide net to ensnare low-level offenders at the front end, keeps those offenders in the system, and metes out punitive responses to violence and other crime often apprehended in contexts of poverty and racial inequality. Two overall themes emerge from this sequential perspective: (1) Many policies operate to expand initial contact with the system through, for example, traffic stops, misdemeanor arrests, or fines and fees. (2) Later
stages of the system can prolong criminal justice involvement, often with few options for diversion. For example, pretrial detention is associated with increased risks of criminal conviction; fines and fees commonly lead to warrants for non-payment; after sentencing, determinate sentencing jurisdictions provide limited opportunities for parole release; and community supervision is associated with an elevated risk of re-incarceration often for non-criminal technical violations.
Racial inequality that is produced in a cumulative way in the social context of structural disadvantage may be unyielding to narrow policy interventions that target specific points of discretion identified in discrimination studies. Research on arrest, sentencing, incarceration, and community supervision indicates that disparity can result from a range of factors, including biased decision-making by line officials, social structural inequalities, and inequalities produced through institutional design. Racial inequality is the cumulative effect of the procedures, decisions, and rules governing the interlocking agencies from police to corrections that comprise the criminal justice system. Analysis of disparities at any one point in the system is too narrow. To understand the impact of the criminal justice system on racial inequality, a more holistic understanding of contact across multiple points is necessary.
REDUCING INEQUALITIES AND ADVANCING EQUITY
Amid a changing political climate and an increase in homicide rates in U.S. cities since 2020, some policy makers have become more resistant to criminal justice reform. Our review of research finds that it is possible to reduce unnecessary and harmful criminal justice contact without increases in crime. In fact, we find that improving outcomes for such populations can help increase public safety. Empirical evidence on racial disparity and crime trends suggests no inherent trade-off between reducing racial and ethnic disparities and improving public safety. In key examples described in the report, large reductions in police stops (e.g., in New York City) and incarceration (e.g., in California) were adopted without corresponding increases in crime. Many other examples from the research literature similarly indicate that racial inequality in the criminal justice system has been reduced without increasing crime. Furthermore, violent victimization and criminal justice contact are often co-occurring in ways that disproportionately affect Black, Latino, and Native American communities. To safely achieve racial equity, it is critical to understand the key contributors of racial inequalities in the criminal justice system and to implement policies and practices that target these inequalities while accounting for the broader social conditions in which inequalities emerge.
As the nation seeks options for addressing longstanding racial inequalities in the criminal justice system, many communities have begun to
embrace concrete policy reforms. The current system, with its outstanding inequalities, was itself built through investments and policy choices over many years, and the scientific evidence on criminal justice reform suggests that changes in policy can help to reduce racial disparities across stages of the system. The committee offers some guiding principles, drawn from the research and its expert judgment, for implementing such public policy approaches; see Box S-2.
Community-Driven Approaches to Safety and Reducing Harm
Calls for a larger role for impacted communities to participate in improving safety have become prominent in contemporary conceptions of criminal justice reform. Rather than relying on the police or other formal institutions of control, local community residents and community-based organizations can take a leading role in the definition and production of
safety. The organizers of these efforts often view their work as not just reducing crime but also reducing racial inequality in crime and criminal justice involvement. In the scientific literature, research on neighborhood social organization, community-based organizations, and residents’ collective efficacy has also emphasized informal social controls enacted under conditions of social trust and shared expectations. Providing organizational resources and harnessing the power of citizens can, at least in theory, enhance safety in ways that law enforcement alone cannot.
Community initiatives show enormous variation in their implementation and in the environments in which they operate. A community can be involved in the production of safety in at least two ways: by taking a leading role in the definition and production of safety and by providing oversight of criminal justice agencies. Community input in the definition and production of safety helps build trust and legitimacy and aligns with democratic values. Researchers can support these goals by creating a better science of assessing the nature of community members’ views and preferences.
RECOMMENDATION 6-1: Cities and localities should partner with researchers to implement an ongoing system of data collection and omnibus surveys to provide data on the views of resident safety and to develop reliable and valid measures of the full range of residents’ viewpoints.
Building healthy communities and reducing crime require investments in community capacity to define and advance safety and reduce harm and inequality associated with criminal justice involvement. Such efforts appear promising for promoting safety, buffering communities from violence, and reducing racial inequality. Moreover, it is necessary to expand the types of evidence from which we judge the success of these programs. Encouraging investments in community capacity building, not simply crime fighting, may be promising, and when such investments are made in people and relationships, not just in programs, they may be more sustainable in the long-run. Just as accountability to the public is needed for criminal justice interventions, community-based efforts also need accountability mechanisms when setting up funding sources, allocating resources, and specifying evaluation metrics for crime reduction.
RECOMMENDATION 6-2: Given suggestive but incomplete results from a burgeoning literature on community-based anti-violence and related initiatives, federal and state agencies should explore the significant expansion of community-driven pilot programs that are fielded in combination with strong evaluation strategies.
Many Indigenous communities rely on traditional systems of accountability, justice, and healing. Because of their emphasis on community definitions of safety, healing, and restorative practices, Indigenous-led efforts to reform justice systems suggest potentially promising models, though there are few rigorous evaluations of such programs and models.
RECOMMENDATION 6-3: In order to better understand the potential for Indigenous approaches to be transferred to other communities (Indigenous or otherwise) and the potential for such models to reduce racial inequalities, federal agencies and philanthropic organizations should support research examining and evaluating tribal models of justice. Such evaluations may need to pay attention to conceptions of success to ensure that outcomes are aligned with community needs and priorities.
Non-Criminal Policy Approaches to Reduce Inequality in Crime and Justice
As described above, eliminating racial inequalities in the criminal justice system must include addressing longstanding inequalities and cumulative, race-based disadvantages experienced over the life course. Policies and programs that improve the material well-being of communities characterized by concentrated disadvantage have the potential to reduce racial inequalities. For example, place-based interventions can target the economic and environmental conditions that can give rise to crime, such as housing insecurity, deficits in the built environment, lack of labor market opportunities, and inadequate public transportation.
In addition to addressing the underlying causes of concentrated disadvantage and segregation, this report also identifies promising sites of intervention in adjacent social policy institutions that can either perpetuate and compound or else mitigate racial inequality in and outside of the criminal justice system, such as education, child welfare, and health systems. Though that list is not exhaustive, the committee examined these systems with a life-course approach and with the understanding that the cumulative nature of racial inequality is intergenerational for families and children. The committee highlights select strategies for reforming social policy institutions with overarching principles that seek to strengthen families and protect children from system involvement, to enhance opportunities for youth learning and healthy development, and to promote health and well-being. Another central tenet of these strategies is the recognition of the role that biases and institutional racism can play in shaping outcomes for youth and families. Without meaningful structural reform that addresses these underlying mechanisms of inequality, decision makers run the risk of shifting the
responsibility to address social problems but perpetuating racial inequality in different systems.
The committee also examines gun violence through a racial equity lens and explores potential policy solutions and public health approaches to minimize harm and advance equity. Given the enormous social cost and racial inequality associated with gun violence, proven measures for reducing the supply of guns may contribute to reducing serious crime that is concentrated in disadvantaged communities.
While this report does not make an exhaustive review, its identification of select strategies addressing longstanding inequalities and cumulative, race-based disadvantages over the life course emphasizes that reducing criminal justice inequalities also depends in part on social and economic policy.
Reforming the Criminal Justice System
The committee views reforms to police, courts, and corrections as part of a larger process needed for significantly reducing inequality. In addition to developing community-based strategies for safety, achieving a reduction in arrests, incarceration, and other criminal justice contact in communities of color will require changes to criminal justice agencies. The criminal justice system should work to holistically respond to harm, including both the harms attributable to crime and the harms for which the criminal justice system is itself responsible.
Consistent with a constitutional vision of the relationship between state and civil society, the state’s powers of arrest and incarceration should be applied parsimoniously, kept at a minimum consistent with the purposes of public policy. An approach grounded in parsimony would rule out enforcement strategies such as widespread stop-question-and-frisk in minority neighborhoods—which have been found unconstitutional by the courts—or frequent querying of citizens about their probation/parole status during minor traffic stops, or pretextual traffic stops for minor equipment violations, all practices for which there is little evidence of abating serious crime but ample evidence of undermining public trust. Moreover, such a constitutional vision would likely preclude extremely harsh sentences that weigh any crime-reducing effect against social costs to individuals, families, and communities. On the other hand, the goals of harm reduction with parsimony would likely justify enhanced policing efforts to clear homicides, reduce gun violence, and reduce the incidence of robbery, burglary, and other serious crimes that are disproportionately experienced in disadvantaged communities.
Given the much larger presence of the criminal justice system in all its forms in minority communities, such a policy change would disproportionately impact affected communities and likely reduce disparities in involvement and victimization. Moreover, a refocusing of the objectives of criminal
justice policy would explicitly take into account the impact of the criminal justice system on inequality, racial inequality in particular. A key strategy to reduce racial inequality involves reducing the scale of police contact, incarceration, and other criminal justice involvement that will tend to produce the largest reductions among Black, Latino, and Native American populations. Reducing the overall scale of criminal justice contact is somewhat different from many reforms that aim to reduce differential treatment, for example through anti-bias training or oversight.
Synthesizing the Evidence on Criminal Justice Reform
A wide variety of measures—including judicial bans on unconstitutional policing and incarceration, sentencing reform for drug offenses and de-felonization, bail reform, and reductions in the intensity and duration of probation and parole—have already reduced the overall level of criminal justice contact, incarceration, and community supervision. Although in many cases relative disparities have not been reduced, these measures have had large effects on reducing absolute racial disparities, with little evidence across specific cases of an adverse effect on crime.
More targeted initiatives to reduce relative disparities—for example, through federal oversight, diversity hiring, anti-bias training, or quantitative risk assessment—have been less clearly effective. In part this is due to limitations of the research evidence, which should be further developed to effectively guide policy. The research and policy experience reviewed in this report has often involved piecemeal and uncoordinated reforms that have affected racial disparity at specific stages of criminal processing, but have had less effect on the racial inequality that emerges across stages and in community contexts of racial inequality. Reducing racial inequality must involve coordinated reforms across stages of the criminal justice system that will reduce the racial disadvantage that accumulates from police contact, to court processing and sentencing, to correctional supervision.
Reducing Racial Inequalities in Criminal Justice Outcomes
Although some jurisdictions have significantly reduced specific kinds of criminal justice contacts that have, in turn, reduced absolute disparities, wide racial inequality in the criminal justice system remains.
RECOMMENDATION 8-1: Subject to the main goals of parsimony and community safety, states, localities, and the federal government should explore ways to reduce police stops and searches, jail detention, prison admissions, and long sentences, which would further reduce racial disparities. Examples of such efforts could include limiting jail
detention to only those charged with serious crimes who pose a serious and immediate risk of harm or flight, pursuing further drug sentencing reform, establishing second-look provisions for long sentences, eliminating revocations of community supervision for technical violations, and eliminating the death penalty.
RECOMMENDATION 8-2: Given evidence of how racial inequality in the criminal justice system partly results from structural inequalities in society and the cumulative effect of criminal processing, states, localities, and the federal government should explore reducing racial inequality through coordinated reforms that work across the stages of the criminal justice system and also address structural inequalities in society.
ENHANCING GRANT-MAKING STRUCTURES, DATA SYSTEMS, AND RESEARCH
The federal government has an important role in shaping the narrative around criminal justice reform efforts. The Department of Justice and similarly situated federal agencies with charges to support justice-involved populations should use their bully pulpit to disseminate findings about evidence-based programs that work to reduce racial and ethnic disparities, promote model jurisdictions implementing effective reforms, and highlight innovative solutions that could be tested, evaluated, and scaled. In doing so, they can emphasize that the pursuit of public safety requires addressing racial and ethnic disparities throughout the criminal justice system. To improve the grant-making process for communities, the report also highlights the need for enhanced performance measures, transparency mechanisms, and specified program areas while allowing for flexibility in some settings (Recommendation 9-1).
In the past decade, several private foundations have provided incentives, taken risks, seeded innovation, and added value to existing efforts in order to accelerate progress toward system reform. It is incumbent upon private organizations and the federal government to coordinate their activities so that investments can be used more effectively to reduce racial and ethnic disparities and promote public safety. The committee identifies the following three areas as ripe for federal and philanthropic support:
- Research support to evaluate policies and programs for reducing racial inequalities;
- Support to better address the needs of communities; and
- A robust data infrastructure to monitor, track, and assess progress toward reducing racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
RECOMMENDATION 10-1: Federal agencies and private foundations that support criminal justice research examining racial inequalities in the criminal justice system should draw upon the best available research—including quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods—to maximize knowledge and avoid the problem of limiting scientific research where empirical methods are not possible or constrained by the lack of quantitative data.
Without a viable data infrastructure, researchers and policy makers will be unable to track, monitor, and evaluate the effectiveness of new policies and their effects on racial and ethnic disparities. To this end, this report outlines opportunities for building a data infrastructure that promotes integration across the criminal justice system and serves to better assess and support efforts to reduce racial inequalities. These efforts include improving the quality and consistency of reporting data on race and ethnicity.
The historical legacy of racial exclusion and structural inequalities in housing, education, and socio-political forces forms the social context for racial inequalities in crime and criminal justice. Enduring socio-economic inequalities in combination with inequalities in the criminal justice system together comprise a process of structural racism, involving a wide variety of mutually reinforcing and interacting institutional domains. While observed racial disparities in outcomes such as incarceration have declined in the past few decades, disparities persist, as do the enduring consequences of racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
This report highlights two evidence-informed approaches that are needed to eliminate racial inequities in crime and justice: (1) policy reform to the criminal justice system itself—reforms to law enforcement, courts, corrections, and community supervision; and (2) innovations outside the criminal justice system to support community-led efforts at safety as well as policy reforms to address racial inequality at the neighborhood level and within adjacent social policy institutions. Furthermore, reversing structural racism and severing the close connections among racial inequality, criminal harms such as violence, and criminal justice involvement will involve fostering local innovation and evaluation, and coordinating and consolidating local initiatives with state and federal leadership. The report synthesizes the evidence on community-based solutions, non-criminal policy interventions, and criminal justice reforms, charting a path toward the reduction of racial inequalities by minimizing harm in ways that also improve community safety.