For years, African Americans have been disproportionately targeted by the criminal-justice system, and have been sent to jail and prison in disproportionate numbers. But that disparity has undergone a subtle shift in recent years: A striking data analysis by the Vera Institute suggests a shift in the racial dynamics and geography of jail over the past two decades. The number of white people in jail has soared over the past two decades, the analysis found, while the black jail population has steadily declined. According to the analysis, “white jail incarceration rates have steadily grown across all regions and jurisdiction types since 1990,” particularly small and medium-sized metropolitan and rural areas.
Despite an overall reduction in the prison population in the past few years, whites are increasingly coming into contact with the criminal-justice system, and a lot of that can be traced to one source: the opioid epidemic. After years of drug policies that dealt harsh punishment to marginalized communities, civil-rights groups and political officials have succeeded in reining in some of the toughest criminal-justice policies and promoted alternatives to incarceration. Yet just as those structural changes were showing progress, a rising jail rate in poor white towns has underscored the structural segregation and instability that continue to drive criminalization and imprisonment in long-overlooked regions. There has meanwhile been a parallel drop in black jail incarceration in large and medium-sized cities, and urban and suburban metro areas.
So are white people replacing blacks behind bars? Clearly, no: Blacks are still jailed at approximately 3.6 times the rate of whites. But the rise in white jail populations, clustered in once-stable small towns, is remarkable. The trend has been exacerbated by a lack of non–criminal justice alternatives for dealing with opioid addiction issues, particularly a lack of adequate treatment programs and a climate of systematic social alienation, joblessness, and instability plaguing blue-collar communities.
Since 1990, white jail incarceration rates have risen by nearly 90 percent, from some 163,500 to 330,300 people. Outlying, often isolated communities are where jail populations have swelled most markedly. In rural towns, specifically, white incarceration jumped by 165 percent, nearly double the rate in small metro areas. As of 2013, rural areas held 15 percent of the general population but one fifth of the jail population, or about 146,000 people (the largest share of the jail population still lies in small towns and cities, with a quarter-million people).
Although the lack of rehabilitative and community-oriented alternatives to incarceration may be hitting whites hardest in some communities, the new demography of American jails seems to mark a carbon-copy of the zero-tolerance, authoritarian law-enforcement tactics earlier deployed to police communities of color. In other words, criminal-justice strategies centered on dehumanization and punishment can be pivoted against any marginalized population, and the structural biases of a system previously used to arrest and imprison blacks are now increasingly targeted at largely white communities caught up in the opioid crisis.