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Pa. imprisons blacks at highest rate

Study by reform group finds it's 14 times that of whites

Sunday, July 29, 2001

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania incarcerates a larger percentage of its minority population than any other state, according to a new study.

For more than a decade, the state has had one of the highest disparities in the rate at which it incarcerates minority inmates compared with the state's minority population, but now it is the worst, according to a study done by the prison reform group the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. The results of the study were published recently by the liberal magazine Mother Jones.

  Disparity rate chart


"This is not shocking news," said Ernie Preate Jr., a former state attorney general who served time in prison on corruption charges and who is now a crusader for prison reform.

"This has been evident the last several years. This certainly should raise some red flags in the governor's office."

The study compared the number of minorities in state prisons with the number of minorities in the state and measured the results against other states, based on 2000 figures.

Overall, blacks make up 55 percent of the state prison population, but 10 percent of the state's population.

The study concluded that 1,678 of every 100,000 blacks in the state are in prison, compared with 117 of every 100,000 whites. That would mean that blacks are imprisoned at a rate 14 times that of whites.

Add in the number of Hispanic and Asian prisoners, who make up less than 1 percent of the state's population and are incarcerated at a lower rate than blacks, and the state incarcerates minorities overall at 11 times the rate of whites.

That disparity is larger than in any other state, according to the study.

Other states that incarcerate minorities more than 10 times the rate of white defendants are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut and New Jersey.

Southern states do not incarcerate as great a percentage of their minority populations as do many Northeastern states. Texas had the lowest incarceration disparity, imprisoning minorities at 2.5 times the rate of whites, the study showed.

" 'Why?' is something we really don't know," said Jason Ziedenberg, senior policy analyst at the Justice Policy Institute.

"That's an intriguing question," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems and operations research at Carnegie Mellon University who has published two well-regarded studies on racial disparity in incarceration rates.

If you assume that states lock up their most violent offenders at the same rate, it may be that the more conservative "law and order" Southern states lock up more people for nonviolent crimes, Blumstein said.

Because whites commit those crimes at the same rates as blacks, that would mean whites would be incarcerated at the same rate, he said.

Less conservative states tend to allow more discretion in the sentencing of nonviolent crimes, and subtle forms of racism could appear in the rates in which minorities are sentenced to prison, Blumstein said.

He said he was "somewhat surprised" that Pennsylvania would have such a disparate rate of incarceration of its black population, and he couldn't say why. Pennsylvania is not considered one of the "liberal" states such as Minnesota and Connecticut, which have less-stringent sentencing provisions, or, to a lesser degree, New Jersey, Blumstein said.

Judges render sentences on a case-by-case basis. An Associated Press investigation revealed last year that blacks in Pennsylvania tended to more often receive prison sentences, or longer ones, than white defendants accused of the same crimes.

Statistics, however, are not kept on the sentences issued by individual judges.

As of June 30, 34 percent of the state's 37,081 inmates were white, 55 percent were black and 10 percent were Hispanic, according to the state Department of Corrections.

"We don't have anything to do with who's sentenced or how long they're sentenced," said Lisa Aaron, spokeswoman for the department.

A study done last year by Human Rights Watch placed Pennsylvania sixth in the country in its rate of racial disparity in incarceration, based on 1998 figures. That study identified Minnesota, New Jersey and Connecticut and other Northeastern states as having the largest racial disparities in incarceration rates, as was found by the Justice Policy Institute.

That blacks over the past 20 years have been sentenced to prisons at high rates is not news. The latest study merely compared the number of blacks in each state's prisons with the number of blacks in each state, highlighting the disparity in sentencing rates as a percentage of each state's minority population.

The drug war of the past 20 years contributed greatly to that disparity, Preate said.

Drug sweeps are more often conducted in cities, where the population of African-Americans and other minority group members tends to be higher, and that means more blacks are arrested on drug charges, even though a variety of studies show that blacks and whites use illegal drugs at the same rates, Preate said.

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