America’s most-watched TV crime dramas leave the impression that crime and punishment in the streets of America is an equal opportunity event. Even cursory content analysis of the most popular shows indicates that the incidence of minority offenders is at (or below) the minority proportion of the population at large, while the number of minority law enforcers is equal (or close to) the number of whites. The latter misrepresentation is a contemporary marketing ploy while the former obscures the plight of minority populations in contemporary America. Jail incarceration rates as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) more accurately reflect the activities of local police and courts across the nation.
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Chart 1, which is based on BJS Correctional Surveys, depicts the number of jail inmates for each 100,000 members of the major racial and ethnic groups in the nation for the last 15 years. It shows that currently African Americans are three times more likely than Hispanics and five times more likely than whites to be in jail, either awaiting adjudication or serving short-term sentences.
Furthermore, Chart 1 shows that the rate of incarcerating African-Americans in America’s jails is on a steady upward trend (a 37 percent increase for the time period). This disturbing trend and the reality of the plight of the poor African American community as reflected in disproportionate jail tenure are further evidence that justice in America is receding further into the background. It is important to keep trends like this in the spotlight.