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July 30, 2007

Noting incarceration's racial imbalance up north

Writing in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Ryan King of the Sentencing Project has this column that provides a New York spotlight on the problems of racial disparities in prison populations.  Here are excerpts:

In New York, home to the Big Apple, one of the world's most diverse cities seen by many as the embodiment of the "melting pot" ideal, recent data illustrating high rates of racial disparity in the use of incarceration should sound alarms.  African Americans in New York state are incarcerated at nine times the rate of whites — the ninth highest rate in the country.  Why do we see these inequities?

The knee-jerk response might be that African Americans commit more crimes and, thus, are imprisoned in disproportionately higher numbers.  However, while different crime rates partly explain these figures, any serious consideration of racial disparity must move beyond arrest rates to examine the underlying causes of these disconcerting statistics in greater depth.

No single factor has exacerbated disparities in rates of arrest and incarceration over the past 30 years more than the "war on drugs."  Since 1980, the number of people in state prisons for drug offenses increased more than 1,200 percent and now represents one of every five people incarcerated. Much of this growth has occurred in communities of color.

Despite making up 13 percent of the general population and 14 percent of regular illegal drug users, more than a third of people arrested for drug offenses and more than half of people in prison for drug offenses are African American.  In New York state, the numbers are particularly stark: More than 90 percent of people incarcerated for drug offenses are African American or Latino.

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OK, here's a question. Why do we always see the relative percentage of drug users as the baseline from which to compare who is being incarcerated. Drug use, in and of itself, is rarely a basis for long-term incarceration. Drug dealing is. So what's the percentage of drug dealers who are black? Also, has someone looked at sentencing of drug dealers. Are black drug dealers getting way more time than similarly situated white dealers?

Posted by: | Jul 30, 2007 10:16:17 AM

The figures for Iowa prison on June 30, 2006 were Blacks a) Drug possession 30 (6.8%), b) Other Drug 10 (2.3%) and c) trafficking 401 (90.9%) and for Whites a) Possession 141 (9.2%), b) Other 32 (2.1%) and c) trafficking 1,351 (88.6%)

The total for trafficking for all races was 1,817 22.1% Black, 74.4% White and 3.5% other races.

The Iowa Board of Parole looked at average length of sentence by race and offense class-type and did not see any evidence of a racial difference.

None of the persons serving a sentence for possession or other drug was serving a mandatory minimum sentence and not all of the trafficking sentences were mandatory minimum sentences.

Posted by: JSN | Jul 30, 2007 10:56:48 AM

I ran an interesting study in Allen County (Lima), Ohio, rgarding racial impact as to specifically drug trafficking offenses. The findings were that the average white jeopardy ndictment was a smidge higher (not significantly so) than the average black jeopardy. The average sentence as a function of the jeopardy from the plea was roughly the same, with a slight tilt to the favor of white defendants. However, the average sentencing as a function of the indictment jeopardy was roughly twice for blacks. Why? The result of double time was a function of the reduction and plea agreements. In other words, the black defendant was getting much less in the way of reduction as to the number of counts and as to the degree of the plea.

Posted by: Ken Rexford | Jul 31, 2007 11:05:32 AM

I think Ken makes a valid point that I have noticed in my practice. As a private practioner who also takes assigned cases, I note that the black client (often assigned) has a number of strikes against him in achieving a lesser sentence. He has fewer choices for rehab, and far inferior therapy options with which to impress the prosecutor into a no or low prosecution arrangement.

Additionally black acedemic opportunities around here are far less than those offered in white communities. This lessens the opportunity for the black defendant to show an ability to succeed outside of prison walls.

Most often, minority drug sales are out-door corner sales. White drug sales are more "selective" and thus it is harder and takes longer to build a high sentence case from these activities.

Community outrage from minority drug sales is loud and strong both from within and outside the effected community. White drug sales, because they do not cluster and are rarely part of a "round up" draw very little attention.

Moving on to non drug prosecutions, while all of the pertinent factors above exsist, you can add in that unlike many non minority prosecutions, minority defendants tend to stay in jail pending prosecution or sentence. More than any other factor, this seems to be the thing that predicts continued jail sentencing in my opinion. Moreover, black and hispanic defendants have fewer family attend sentencing and other court dates. It is far easier to put a person in jail, if a judge does not have to stare at a family in tears. Finally, minorities have fewer people of import to support their requests for less jail. While courts often ignore standard letters of "he's a good boy or he is from a good family" type letters, a letter from a Doctor, elected- official or other professional, carries a lot of wieght with judges, where the letter talks shows a relationship with the defendant and can cite actual interactions that back up the writer's opinion. Minorities do not appear to have that support.

Finally Rockerfeller drug law sentences of course play a big part in disparities. It will be interesting to see what if any effect the recent changes will have on these types of sentences.

Posted by: That Lawyer Dude | Jul 31, 2007 3:52:31 PM

Most juvenile offenders do not become adult offenders but most adult offenders were juvenile offenders. Many juvenile offenders choose another path (self-diversion) and some are run though a diversion program that works. I wonder if there is a Black/White difference in the juvenile diversion rates? My guess is there is a significant difference that may be related to a lack of Black male role models.

The largest Black/White ratios are in juvenile detention centers. A juvenile should not be placed in a juvenile detention center unless they are out-of-control but I don't think that is why all of them are there. I think the judge lacks a better option in too many cases.

If we want to reduce the number of Blacks in our jails in prisons we have to spend time and money on the Black kids starting in day-care and following them until they graduate from high school.

Posted by: JSN | Aug 1, 2007 7:59:37 AM

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