Racial profiling and sentencing disparities are part of the institutional racism of the criminal justice system in the United States in which more Latino and African American men are put in prison. African American women are incarcerated at higher rates than white women, also. Much of this incarceration is for low-level drug arrests. These high rates of imprisonment, which are a relatively recent phenomenon, are especially detrimental to families of color and men of color and can even influence the next generation.

The United States incarcerates at the highest rate in the developed world, although this is a newer phenomenon, caused by policies and driven by economic, racist, and political factors. Incarceration rates increased from 1972 to 1984 and from 1984 to 1994. The 2016 rates include more than 7 per 1,000 people, and, now, 1 in 37 people. Incarceration rates intensified despite the crime rates falling in the 1990s. The main victims of the incarceration policies are people of color. Long sentences are given for nonviolent crimes. The particular policies that spearheaded the higher rates and longer sentences were the 1984 Crime Control Act, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Disparities in the criminal justice system are reflections of institutional racism. Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in all aspects of the criminal justice system although they do not commit more crimes. They are overrepresented in terms of sentencing disparities, racial profiling, and higher death penalty sentences. Racial profiling has led to deaths of people of color—Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland. In 2013, black males were five times more likely to be incarcerated than white males. Women of color are more likely to be incarcerated than white women. Women of color may also be the main caregivers of children. Women are more likely to be physically or sexually abused and to have been put in jail for protecting themselves from abusers. Economic dynamics contribute to high imprisonment rates and the creation of the prison industrial complex. These dynamics include deindustrialization and impoverishment, Reaganomics, cuts in social spending, neoliberalism (profits before people), and the rise of for-profit prisons. Politics have influenced this industry through tough-on-crime policies. The long-term consequences of this include traumatized and disrupted families and children. A stigma follows rehabilitated former prisoners for the remainder of their lives that is especially damaging for persons of color.