A Tale of Three States, Pt. 2: Racial Disparities

In the first post in this series, I highlighted a sizable gap between the incarceration rates of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Although the two states have similar crime rates, Wisconsin has more than twice Minnesota’s incarceration rate (651 per 100,000 versus 310).

In this post, I cover racial disparity data in the two states.  As summarized in a helpful new article by Michael Rocque (“Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System and Perceptions of Legitimacy: A Theoretical Linkage,” 1 Race & Justice 292 (2011)), a substantial body of research documents wide racial disparities in the American criminal justice system.  Consistent with the national data, and despite longstanding reputations for progressive politics, both Minnesota and Wisconsin exhibit troublingly large disparities in white and black incarceration rates.


The numbers are set forth in a table at the end of this post.  In both states, the black incarceration rate is several times that of the white incarceration rate.  However, Wisconsin’s disparity ratio (10.6) is somewhat worse than Minnesota’s (9.1).

Although the difference between the numbers may not seem large at first blush, it does translate into a meaningful difference in the overall prison population.  For instance, if Wisconsin were able to bring its disparity ratio down to Minnesota’s 9.1 by lowering its black incarceration rate, that would mean a reduction in the state prison population of more than 2,200 individuals, which is about ten percent of the total.  Among other things, this would help to close the wide gap in corrections expenditures between Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Surprisingly, the two states have almost exactly the same disparity ratio in their probation populations: 4.2 for Minnesota and 4.3 for Wisconsin.  Because probation is a much more common disposition than imprisonment in both states (overwhelmingly so in Minnesota), the probation numbers suggest that disparities in Wisconsin and Minnesota are similar in the early stages of the criminal process (arrest, charging, conviction), but that Wisconsin’s disparities accelerate more rapidly than Minnesota’s in the latter stages (sentencing and revocation of community supervision).

In any event, at whatever stage of the process they arise, it is not clear what one should make of racial disparities.  A great deal of research has been done to try to determine whether the disparities are warranted (i.e., due to a greater crime-proneness among blacks or a tendency to commit more serious crimes) or unwarranted (i.e., due to conscious or unconscious racial bias in the design or implementation of criminal laws).  Reviewing this research, Rocque concludes:

It is fair to say that most recent studies conclude that racial disparities in the CJS [criminal justice system] reflect both differential behavior and treatment.  Even those studies suggesting that discrimination exists in the CJS grant that much of the racial disparities found can be explained by “legitimate” factors.  (299)

I reached a similar conclusion in a recent article discussing racial disparities in drug enforcement.

As Rocque also points out, however, it is too simplistic to think of racial disparity in either/or terms: either caused by black criminal conduct or white official bias, as if these were wholly distinct social phenomena.  More likely, there are powerful synergistic relationships between disparate treatment, perceptions of bias, loss of trust of the police in black communities, crime, and actual bias.  Rocque provides a complicated diagram with causation arrows pointing back and forth among these phenomena (303).  The basic idea is that racial disparities can feed on themselves to the point that the warranted/unwarranted distinction loses much of its significance.  If this sort of a feedback effect is indeed playing itself out in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the result may be elevated levels of both crime and incarceration in black communities.  (As I discussed in this post, research on procedural justice suggests ways to break the feedback loop.)

In the next post in this series, I will add data from the third state, Indiana, to the mix.



White Incarceration Rate (2005 data, per 100,000)



Black Incarceration Rate



Black Incarceration Rate as Multiple of White



White Probation Rate (2009 data, per 100,000)



Black Probation Rate



Black Probation Rate as Multiple of White