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Racial and ethnic disparities in the United States criminal justice system are large and persistent. Prison statistics indicate that 28 percent of African American males and 16 percent of Hispanic males will be sent to prison in their lifetime, compared with only 4.4 percent of White males, and that Black and Hispanic minority groups made up 64 percent of the U.S. prison inmate population in 2001 (Bonczar & Beck, 1997). Police statistics showed that in 2000, African Americans were 6 times more likely than Whites to be murdered and 7 times more likely to commit homicides (Fox & Zawitz, 2003). Such stark racial and ethnic disparities polarize researchers and commentators into two opposing camps: those who think that the overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system is a reflection of group differences in criminal offending, and those who argue that the disparities in official statistics (e.g., rates of arrest, conviction, incarceration) reflect persistent biases among decision-makers in the criminal justice system (McCord, Widom, & Crowell, 2001; Tonry, 1995; Zimring & Hawkins, 1997). One casualty of this debate is the advancement of criminological research on the fundamental sources of racial and ethnic differences in criminal and delinquent behavior (McCord et al., 2001).
This paper reviews the key empirical findings on race, ethnicity, and criminal/delinquent behavior in the United States.
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