Racial and Jurisdictional Disparities

The chart above shows drug incarceration rates by race and judicial circuit. I find it productive to display racial disparities by focusing on absolute outcomes. The usual way of talking about racial disparities–“black Americans are X times more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans”–obscures enormous degrees of local variation.

In addition to highlighting racial disparities, this visualization brings jurisdictional disparities into focus. The extreme differences between circuits are largely the result of the fact that each circuit has its own judges, prosecutors, and probation officers. Though all are acting within the same legal structures across the entire state, their varying practices produce massive inequities. John Pfaff writes persuasively that it is more accurate to talk about “U.S. criminal justice systems” because the plural noun better accounts for these types of jurisdictional variation.

In almost every circuit in Florida, the incarceration rate of black adults solely for drugs is higher than the total incarceration rate for similar countries. The 15th Circuit (Palm Beach) has a drug incarceration rate for black adults of 173 per 100,000. The United Kingdom’s incarceration rate for all offenses is 187 per 100,000. When racial and jurisdictional differences compound, the disparities can be astounding.

Black adults in the 19th Circuit (Okeechobee) are 110 times more likely to be incarcerated for drugs than white adults in Palm Beach. Put another way, if the general populations were equivalent, for every white prisoner incarcerated for drugs from Palm Beach there would be 110 black prisoners from Okeechobee. Though to a less extreme degree, white Floridians are also heavily impacted by the War on Drugs. In some rural areas, such as the 3rd (Lake City) and 14th (Panama City) Circuits, the white adult drug incarceration rates are 194 and 149, respectively. Statewide, black adults are almost twice as likely to be in prison for a drug offense than residents of the UK are to be in prison for any reason.