State and federal prisons in Virginia and around the country have a disproportionately high number of African American inmates, but racial disparities in correctional facilities are less pronounced today than they were in previous decades. In 2000, the chance of being sent to a state prison for violating drug laws was 15 times higher for African Americans than it was for whites. By 2016, that figure had fallen to five times higher.
A study released on Dec. 3 by the Council on Criminal Justice reveals that racial gaps have grown smaller in local, state and federal prison populations and among individuals on parole or probation. The imbalances are blamed by experts on racism within the criminal justice system and harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s. While racial divides in correctional facilities are shrinking, the report shows that the sentences handed down to black defendants are becoming harsher for all types of crime.
Some experts say that changing prison demographics are a reflection of drug use in society as a whole. The recreational use of marijuana is now legal in several states, and many jurisdictions in states where the drug is still prohibited no longer pursue marijuana cases vigorously. This comes at a time when prosecutions for possessing or distributing drugs that are more popular among white Americans, such as opioids and methamphetamine, are becoming more common.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys may seek to obtain more lenient treatment for individuals accused of committing nonviolent drug offenses by bringing up mitigating factors during plea discussions. Prosecutors might decide that a less severe sentence is merited when defendants are genuinely remorseful for their actions, have a reliable full-time job and are supported by their friends and family members. Attorneys may also remind prosecutors that society is better served when minor offenders are rehabilitated rather than punished.