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Black Americans are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of Whites, new report on state prisons finds



The report found that one in 81 Black adults per 100,000 people in the United States is serving time in a state prison, using data and projections from recent years from the US Census, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics and information provided directly from some states.

“Truly meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system cannot be accomplished without acknowledgement of its racist underpinnings,” Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst for The Sentencing Project, wrote in the report. “Immediate and focused attention on the causes and consequences of racial disparities is required in order to eliminate them.”

The report released on Wednesday, found “staggering disproportionalities” among the rates of incarceration of Blacks and Latinx people compared to Whites. In 12 states, more than half of the prison population is Black. And Latinx individuals are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 1.3 times the incarceration rate of Whites, according to the report.

The Sentencing Project found that Wisconsin leads the country with the highest rate of Black inmates. One in every 36 Black Wisconsinites are in prison, according to the report.

A separate analysis from The Prison Policy Initiative gave the state a failing grade for overcrowding their adult correctional facilities during the pandemic, and a 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute found that half of the young Black men from Milwaukee County were in state prison.

Hawaii, the state with the lowest Black-to-White disparity, still imprisons Blacks at “more than two times the rate of Whites,” according to the report.

Nellis proposed three recommendations to address the racial disparities. Those recommendations include eliminating mandatory sentences for all crimes, requiring racial impact statements to calculate the impact of proposed crime legislation on different populations and repeal existing racially biased laws, and decriminalizing low-level drug offenses.

There are “three recurrent explanations for racial disparities emerge from dozens of studies on the topic: a painful and enduring legacy of racial subordination, biased policies and practices that create or exacerbate disparities, and structural disadvantages that perpetuate disparities,” according to the report.

“While chronic racial and ethnic disparity in imprisonment has been a known feature of the prison system for many decades, there has been little adjustment to policy or practices — inside or outside the justice system — to address these patterns directly,” Nellis wrote.

Some elected prosecutors across the country have created their own policies to prevent mass incarceration by eliminating cash bail and by not prosecuting low-level amounts of marijuana and low-level nonviolent crimes like loitering.

Nine states have decreased their prison population by 30% or more in recent years: Alaska, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Alabama, Rhode Island, Vermont, Hawaii and California, according to the report.

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