News Release

BU study: Black-specific incarceration rates are associated with Black firearm homicide rates

Study highlights how the history of America’s mass incarceration may be contributing to increased violence in the communities that are hardest hit by incarceration

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Boston University School of Medicine

(Boston)—Firearm-related injury remains a significant burden in the U.S. with more than 45,000 people dying from these injuries in 2020. Suicides continue to account for the majority of all gun deaths. The number of homicides due to gun violence decreased between 1990 and 2010, but the last decade has seen an uptick. Homicides now make up 45% of all gun-related deaths, and Black and other minorities are overrepresented among firearm homicide victims. Moreover, there has been a stark increase in incarcerated populations in the U.S since the 1980s largely due to differential drug sentencing, of which members of minority groups are also overrepresented.


In a new study, researchers from Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine found that higher incarceration rates for Black Americans significantly increased the risk of gun violence in those same communities. This was not true for white or Hispanic Americans where there was no significant impact of incarceration on rates of firearm violence. The researchers believe that the social disorganization from mass incarceration and a higher percentage of single-parent households among Black families may help perpetuate firearm homicides in this population.

“Among Americans born in the 1990s, 29% of Black individuals can expect to serve a prison sentence compared to 16% of Hispanic individuals and 5% of whites,” explains corresponding author Michael Poulson, MD, MPH, clinical instructor of surgery at the school. “This racially disparate mass incarceration preferentially targets Black men, particularly those with less than a high school degree. Our findings reinforce these statistics by showing higher rates of Black incarceration in the city of Chicago when compared to white and Hispanic counterparts.”


In an effort to understand the mediating effect of social vulnerability and single-parent households on the relationship between incarceration and firearm homicides, the researchers performed a retrospective study reviewing all firearm homicide victims in Chicago, from 2001-2019.

According to the researchers, the findings are interesting because previous studies, which did not use granular data, showed that incarceration reduces violence because it takes crime offenders off the street. “Our study challenges this assumption by showing that mass incarceration may actually be more detrimental to communities by taking caregivers out of families and disrupting family units, thereby perpetuating violence,” says Poulson, who is also a general surgery resident at Boston Medical Center.


The researchers believe this study ultimately shows that mass incarceration may not have the benefit of reducing crime and may actually worsen crime and violence in already vulnerable communities. “Systemic changes in the criminal justice system should be discussed to provide equitable relief to communities that have been hardest hit by mass incarceration and firearm violence for decades,” said Poulson.


These findings appear online in the journal JAMA Surgery.


Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.