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African American Forum

D. Parole - Racial Disparity in the United States Criminal Justice System

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During the era of mass incarceration, a declining proportion of the prison population has a sentence that allows for discretionary release on parole, as lawmakers have required courts to shift from indeterminate sentences (whose release requires a discretionary parole decision) to fixed-term sentences (which have set release dates). Among sentences that allow for discretionary parole release, the process can be harder for people of color. Some research suggests that parole boards are influenced by an applicant’s race in their decision making, though more research is needed in this area. Racial bias among correctional officers also shapes parole outcomes. As revealed by a New York Times investigation on New York prisons, comparable in-prison conduct—a major determinant of parole decisions—may result in divergent prison disciplinary records for blacks and Latinos versus whites. Based on an analysis of almost 60,000 disciplinary cases from the state’s prisons, reporters found that disparities in discipline were greatest for infractions that gave discretion to guards, such as disobeying a direct order.

Underinvestment and racial disparities also persist in community supervision—with many parole and probation systems offering supervision with little support, and with evidence that parole and probation officers are more likely to revoke people of color than whites for comparable behavior. For example, the Urban Institute’s examination of probation revocation rates in Dallas County, Texas; Iowa’s Sixth Judicial District; Multnomah County, Oregon; and New York City revealed that black probationers were revoked at disproportionate rates in all study sites at levels which “raise concerns about the presence of bias to the disadvantage of black probationers.”


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