Reducing Racial Inequalities in the Justice System

Awarded Scholars:
Natacha Blain, National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine
Emily Backes, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Project Date:
Mar 2021
Award Amount:

African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans have much greater exposure to the criminal justice system than their native-born white counterparts. High poverty rates and systematic racism contribute to this difference, with poor black males more likely to go to jail when unable to pay bail or to be arrested because of outstanding fines and fees. Disparities by race and ethnicity emerge throughout the system, from the quality of interactions with the police and their outcomes to differential bail, trial and sentencing decisions. The fatal shootings of unarmed African Americans by the police and the ensuing mass social protests have given new urgency to the need to address racial inequality in the justice system. Responses in many jurisdictions include local reentry initiatives, legislation and ballot initiatives to reduce drug sentences, curtailing probation and parole revocations due to technical violations, eliminating cash bail, and the use of risk assessment tools in decisions regarding pretrial detention. Yet there is little consensus on which of these strategies can help reduce racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. To address this question, the Committee on Law and Justice of the National Academies (NAS) has assembled an ad hoc committee of criminal justice experts to review and synthesize evidence on how to best reduce racial differences in the criminal justice system. The committee will make evidence-driven policy and research recommendations for criminal justice stakeholders, identifying ways to reduce racial and ethnic disparities. The committee, chaired by Harvard University historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Columbia University sociologist Bruce Western, includes representatives from many disciplines—sociologists, historians, legal scholars, economists, attorneys, a judge, former law enforcement executive, criminologist, and political scientist. The NAS principal investigator, Natacha Blain, is a psychologist.


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