Despite being known as mass incarceration, it does not impact the masses on equal terms. It is clear from prison statistics worldwide that certain groups and communities are grossly over-represented in prison populations. “Othered” communities—whether African-Americans and Latinos in the US; Indigenous people in Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand; Roma people and foreign-born people throughout Europe; poor people all over the Global South—are targeted by and thus caught up in criminal justice systems at dramatically disproportionate levels.

Commonly overrepresented groups include those listed below. There is also intersectionality, with these groups overlapping in multiple forms of disadvantage.

  • Ethnic or racial groups
  • Religious minorities
  • LGBTQ communities
  • Foreign-born populations
  • The poor
  • Those facing mental health & substance abuse issues

Understanding the historical legacies of slavery and colonial patriarchy in each country context is essential in order to understand why particular social groups appear to become the targets of penal excess. Explanations for the disparities in incarceration have generally encompassed a range of factors: discriminatory decision-making throughout the justice process, from the point of arrest onwards (and particularly with respect to prosecutions for drug offences), as well as the intersection between race, poverty and such other structural disadvantages as lack of access to labor markets, adequate education, and social and health services.


Many INN partner organizations work directly to counter and fight against the overrepresentation of specific populations in prisons. You can search our database here by target groups they work with, including various overrepresented populations.

Download our 3 page brief here with more statistics, resources and information about programs addressing this issue.