Although the US legal system is based on equal outcomes for equal offenses, racial disparity has emerged as a harsh reality, affecting the idea of the national strategy on gender equity and equality (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). Having a long and deep racialized history, the US criminal justice system is accused of discriminatory applications and a lack of equal justice under the law consistently. Mass incarceration in America is known for distinctive racial biases and the growing rate of imprisonment, surpassing other nations around the globe (Hinton & Cook, 2021). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the blend of inequality in the structural segment and the discrepancy in the law enforcement sector has been amplified by the fact that a substantial decrease in the overall number of incarcerated people was observed while the proportion of incarcerated Black people recorded a sharp increase (Klein et al., 2023). The sentencing patterns that act as the central mechanism to drive racial disparity are triggering the following research questions –

  • Did racial disparities in sentences and imprisonment during the 2020 period cause the system’s inequality among the African-American male population aged 20-34 years?
  • Do you think that these disparities were similar in different races, genders, and locality?

The central argument of this research paper will be on inequity in the US criminal justice system, specifically focusing on African-American men aged 20-34 years. It will include the criteria of a) racial disparities in sentencing and incarceration, b) unequal impact on this African-American population, and c) far-reaching consequences due to this cycle of systemic unfairness (Klein et al., 2023). In the next section, relevant aspects of this research topic will be discussed.

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General Overview/History of this Research Topic

Due to race-based differential treatment, the US criminal justice system has remained a puzzle in terms of policies, practices, and sentencing patterns. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, by Michelle Alexander clearly illustrates how the US legacy of slavery and other explicitly race-based laws and policies have evolved to form the present criminal justice system (Hinton & Cook, 2021). As such, criminalizing Black people can be defined as the impact of racist laws and policies, resulting in racial disparities while sentencing. Deeply embedded within the legal system, racial biases deeply impact Black people and other people of color (Klein et al., 2023). Across American cities, racial disparities have been well-documented from routine police stops to long-term imprisonment. Backed by the long-created US laws, the discrimination against people of color is revealed by the following data–

  • From 1972 to 2009, despite the 700% growth in the number of incarcerated individuals, the disproportionate impact on Black people indicated the interaction of racially influenced policies and implicit biases in every segment of the criminal justice system. It was also observed that during the highest rate of imprisonment, the incarceration rate of Black people was 6.5 times that of White people. (Hinton & Cook, 2021)
  • For the past two decades, the massive incarceration of Black people has been a longstanding fact. It is further observed that while Black people constitute only about 14% of the general population, they make up more than a third of the jail population nationally. (Kurlychek & Johnson, 2019)
  • The recent BJS reporting shows that between 2019 and 2020, a sharp decrease in the proportion of incarcerated Black and White people was observed. But the decreasing rate was higher for White people than the Black ones. (Klein et al., 2023)
  • The Jail Data Initiative (JDI) database, comprised of 349 jails, presented relevant demographic data from 2020 to 2022. It showed that from March to May 2020, the average daily White jail population fell by 25%, while the Black jail population reduced by just 15% over the same period. (LaBrie, 2022)
  • The JDI database (dated December 2022) analyzed the average daily population of jails with data going back to March 2020, indicating an increase of 4% in comparison to pre-pandemic levels. It was also observed that the average number of Black people in those 349 jails increased by 8% compared with an increase of less than 1% for White people. (Robey et al., 2023)

The below figure will support the above racial discrepancy data of the country’s legal system–

Figure 1: Comparing the total number of incarcerated people with the total % of incarcerated Black people


However, this research paper will discuss the inequity in the US criminal justice system impacting African-American men aged 20-34 years during the 2020 period. It was observed that during the COVID-19 pandemic period, the percentage of Black incarcerated people increased sharply in almost every prison system across the country (Hinton & Cook, 2021). The below section will discuss the core factors related to the growing racial discrepancy trend, based on accumulated and validated datasets, and includes state-level information on incarcerated populations.

A brief overlook of the current state of the research

This section will define how the pandemic period amplified the existing inequities within the legal system despite the largest and most rapid single-year decrease in incarcerated percentage observed over the period (Gillette, 2020). Across every state and federal prison system, the distinctive growth in the incarcerated Black people percentage indicated the sentencing patterns that are acknowledged as the core factors behind the triggering racial discrepancy fact (Klein et al., 2023). Based on the assembled and validated dataset, a drastic decrease in the percentage of the incarcerated population was observed in 2020, while the severity of these declines was not equally proportionate for the Black people held in jail (Kurlychek & Johnson, 2019). These scenarios indicate racially biased policies and sentencing outcomes and the following figure will support the racial disparity in the proportion of Black people held in jail-

Figure 2: Proportion of incarcerated Black people across 12 states


Based on the above, the discussion will be on the inequity in the criminal justice system, impacting African-American men aged 20-34 years. It is observed that growth in the incarceration rate is higher among young African-American men with very low levels of education. According to various research, it can be stated that racial disparities in sentencing and incarceration directly relate to stereotype mindset, race-based biased perspectives, and false ideas of the criminality of non-white groups (Hinton & Cook, 2021). Pervasive racism is evident throughout the legal system and racist policies and practices strongly influence every decision-making activity of law enforcement and judicial processes (Robey et al., 2023).

According to many research studies, implicit biases result in stereotype policing behavior impacting the community of color more harshly and distinctly than the White communities (LaBrie, 2022). This research paper investigates the racial disparities in sentencing and incarceration among African-American men aged 20–34 and it is observed that this group of people is more inclined to engage in risk-taking behavior and peer influence (Klein et al., 2023). However, the sentencing disparities among Black and White communities indicate the conscious and unconscious biases of law enforcement and judicial processes. The following figure is the evidence of this fact-

Figure 3: Sentencing disparity in Black-White communities for the same crime


These discrepancies result in far-reaching consequences, impacting marriage, women, children, other family members, labor employment market opportunities, and other alienation from social institutions. So, it can be stated that all these specific obstacles contribute to a cycle of systemic unfairness, reinforcing existing social divisions (Hinton & Cook, 2021). By analyzing the role of varied factors, this paper highlights how racial disparities in sentencing outcomes worsen preexisting socioeconomic issues within this population (Robey et al., 2023). Also, the analysis will shed light on the comparative approach of the US criminal justice system across racial, gender, and geographic groups (Klein et al., 2023). In the below section, the presentation of current academic research papers will focus on all these aspects to analyze the research questions with the help of the proposed central argument.

Analytical perspectives with the support of present academic research

The period of 2020 turned out to be heightening the racial discrepancy issues throughout the legal system. By using public sources on prison demographics, a dataset, comprised of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, was curated. It was observed that while the incarcerated percentage of Black and Latino people sharply increased, White people benefitted from the disproportionate decrease in the US prison population (Klein et al., 2023). The racial discrepancy was recorded across state and federal prison systems and this trend depends on several factors, which are as follows-

  • Discrimination at the individual level, including law enforcement officers, judicial authorities, rehabilitation centers, and parole authorities, (Kurlychek & Johnson, 2019)
  • Racial disparity in sentencing patterns, (Hinton & Cook, 2021)
  • High disparities in jail admissions, length of stay, and releasing patterns, (Randall, 2020)
  • Policies and procedures result in different types of racial impacts, (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018) and
  • Other demographic and criminal legal variables like charge severity, sex, and age (Klein et al., 2023)

According to many research studies, it has been observed that during the COVID period, apart from admissions and sentencing, racial disparities were also recorded in releasing patterns. As such, a significant rise in the percentage of Black and other non-white people, held in jail, during 2020 was a harsh reality of the race-blind US criminal justice system. But the most important underlying factor is differences in the average length of prison sentence by race (Hinton & Cook, 2021). All these factors contribute to the system’s inequality among African-American male population aged 20-34 years. The following figure will also support the fact of racial disparities in sentences and imprisonment during the 2020 period-

Figure 4: Racial disparities in the percentage of the incarcerated population


Besides the racial disparities in Black incarcerated people, systemic differences are also observed among other non-white people like Latinos and Hispanic communities. Across nearly every state-level prison system it was documented that in comparison to White people Latinos and other non-white communities experienced a high incarceration rate for committing similar types of crimes (Klein et al., 2023). However, it can be stated that Black people are the highest victims of racial disparities in law enforcement and judicial processes, followed by other non-white groups like Latinos.


From the above analysis of the research papers, it can be stated that the US criminal justice system has not yet been able to overcome racial biases in every segment of its processes (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). The central argument of this research paper is the inequity in the legal processes and its impacts on African-American men aged 20-34 years in terms of sentencing and incarceration (Klein et al., 2023). The role of the varied factors mentioned above results in disparity in the length of sentences and growth in the percentage of incarceration among Black and other non-white groups (Hinton & Cook, 2021). Experiencing unfair treatment and less respect from police officers to biases from prosecutors, judges, corrections agencies, or parole authorities contribute to an increase in the Black jail population than white people (LaBrie, 2022). The below figure will support this fact-

Figure 5: Comparison of incarcerated black and white people during 2020-2022


Further, differences in the average length of prison sentence by race trigger many preexisting socioeconomic issues like disrupting social and family life, lack of employment opportunities, and severe impacts on children with much less probability of having a normal childhood (Kurlychek & Johnson, 2019). On the other hand, the White community enjoys a more stable social and family life, getting higher education and better employment opportunities (Randall, 2020). Also, Black people without any college education are less likely to be employed in areas with higher incarceration rates. All these factors support our first research question that these discrepancies not only severely impact the Black community but at the same time contribute to a cycle of systemic unfairness, reinforcing the existing social divisions (Taxman & Byrne, 2005).

Moreover, the unique combination of race and age in the US criminal justice system is also illuminated in other non-white groups. It is observed that in comparison to White people, Latinos, and other non-white communities experience harsh sentencing and a longer average length of stay (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2018). Another factor is young adults in each county are the victims of racial disparities in sentencing and imprisonment in comparison to groups over 34 years. Moreover, the male population is experiencing far more racial discrepancies than the women or white people (Hinton & Cook, 2021). So, these facts support our second research question to some extent. At last, it can be precisely stated that non-white groups experience less severity in sentencing and imprisonment than Black people.


This research paper sheds light on the racial disparities in the US criminal justice system. Black and other non-white groups experience harsh sentencing, strict imprisonment, and systemic unfairness in comparison to White people. The analysis of the contributing factors emphasizes the trends differences in the admission, average length of stay, and releasing patterns in the 2020 period, which intensify the scenarios of social and family disruptions. Since the growth of a nation depends on the prosperity and well-being of each of its citizens, it is recommended that the country should focus on reforming and restructuring its criminal justice system to bring fairness, equity, and unbiased treatment to all, irrespective of race, gender, and location.    

Works Cited

Gillette, C. (2020). Do Mandatory Minimums Increase Racial Disparities in Federal Criminal Sentencing? Undergraduate Economic Review, 17(1), 1-14.

Hetey, R. C. & Eberhardt, J. L. (2018). The Numbers Don’t Speak for Themselves: Racial Disparities and the Persistence of Inequality in the Criminal Justice System. Association for Psychological Science, 27(3), 183-187.

Hinton, E., & Cook, D. (2021). The mass criminalization of Black Americans: A historical overview. Annual Review of Criminology4, 261-286.

Klein, B., Ogbunugafor, C. B., Schafer, B. J., Bhadricha, Z., Kori, P., Sheldon, J., Kaza, N., Sharma, A., Wang, E. A., Eliassi-Rad, T., Scarpino, S. V., & Hinton, E. (2023).  COVID-19 amplified racial disparities in the US criminal legal system. Nature, 617(7960), 344-350.

Kurlychek, M. C. & Johnson, B. D. (2019). Cumulative Disadvantage in the American Criminal Justice System, Annual Review of Criminology, 2, 291-319. 10.1146/annurev-criminol-011518-024815

LaBrie, R. (2022). White-Collar Crime: Diversity and Discrimination in Sentencing. Honors Projects, 161, 1-39.

Randall, J. L. (2020). Race and the Criminal Justice System in the United States: Part 1. Audens: revista estudiantil d’anàlisi interdisciplinària, (2).

Robey, J. P., Massoglia, M., & Light, M. T. (2023). A Generational Shift: Race and the Declining Lifetime Risk of Imprisonment. Demography, 60(4), 977-1003.

Taxman, F. S., & Byrne, J. M. (2005). Racial disparity and the legitimacy of the criminal justice system: exploring consequences for deterrence. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved16(4), 57-77.