The Most Colorblind Prisons … Are in the South?

A prisoner walks thru a fenced section toward a guard tower at Angola Prison in Louisiana.

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Why you should care

This is sadly not a sign that they've solved criminal justice in America.

Fair and Equal: An OZY series on fixing the skewed scales of American justice. Fair and Equal: An OZY series on fixing the skewed scales of American justice.

Lady Justice is blind. At least, that’s how the saying goes. Too often though, she is not colorblind. Disparities in charges, sentencing and incarceration rates abound in America’s criminal justice system, with outcomes disproportionately tied to the answer to a single question: What is the color of your skin?

After all, Black men receive federal prison sentences nearly 20 percent longer on average than White men for the same crime, according to a report from the United States Sentencing Commission in 2017.

The Deep South probably isn’t the first place you think of as a poster child for equal treatment and equitable prison populations across racial lines. Yet …

Four of the five U.S. states with the lowest racial disparities in prison populations are in the South.

These include Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky and Mississippi, according to a recent study released by The Sentencing Project. Each of those states saw close to a 3:1 ratio between Black and White prisoners. Which, obviously, isn’t great … until you see what’s happening in other states. In Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, there are at least 11 Black people jailed for every one White person. New Jersey has the worst ratio in America, with 12 times the number of Black prisoners as White prisoners.

Even in Hawaii, which had the lowest disparity, African Americans were more than twice as likely to be arrested as White offenders. The study also found that Latinos were imprisoned at a rate 1.4 times than that of Whites, with particularly high disparities in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York — all in the Northeast.

Arts In Prison

Women of the Alabama Department of Corrections system participate in The Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project.

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Differences in drug arrests and laws are a major factor. “It’s more the effect of there being a more lenient approach, or just more of a ‘second chance look’ at Whites and less of that leniency given toward African Americans, for whatever reason. It’s not explained by differences in crime rates,” says Ashley Nellis, a senior analyst and author of the study, The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.

Sarah Catherine Walker, founder of the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, notes that the Midwest’s racial history is tied to the Great Migration (of African Americans from the South to the North) and the pursuit of industrial jobs. “A lot of those manufacturing jobs are all drying up — so what you see is a compounding of multiple racial disparities in Northern areas. That starts with employment, but then it goes into housing.” And criminal justice.

So what accounts for the relative equity found in Southern states? Unfortunately, it’s not that the South is better at keeping people out of prison. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite: Mississippi has a 65.3 percent Black incarceration rate, Georgia has a 62 percent rate and Alabama is at 58.5 percent — putting each of them in the seven-worst states for Black incarceration. The difference is that, unlike their Northern neighbors, Southern states aggressively lock up White people too. They have made a more equitable criminal justice system not by imprisoning fewer people of color, but by imprisoning more White people.

“The Northern, and particularly Northeastern, states have found a way to not incarcerate White people, but have not extended that same solution to African Americans,” Nellis says. Walker adds that the Midwest also saw lower prison inequality rates in the 2000s … once enforcement of crystal meth laws (which more often targeted White drug users) caught up to laws governing the crack-cocaine epidemic that more often affected Blacks.

All this suggests fairness, but not necessarily justice. If other states have found ways to effectively decrease their number of incarcerated citizens, why can’t the South? It’s certainly not for lack of trying (or, rather, branding). In recent years, Southern governors from Texas to Louisiana and Georgia have advertised their efforts on criminal justice reform, attracting positive press and feel-good stories. Those states have passed laws reducing mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and overhauling guidelines for nonviolent offenders, and are making progress legislatively.

Yet each of those states also ranks in the top 10 for incarceration rates — not just in the United States but in the world, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. “Some of the reforms I see are too modest to really make a dent,” Nellis says, noting that half of state prisoners are there for violent crimes, and yet often “the reforms that are proposed and enacted deliberately exclude people convicted of violence.”

There is another challenge. Reforms, while lowering prison populations and sentences, have a side effect of widening racial gaps in the short term. “If you pass any new law, it will disproportionately benefit the majority population,” Walker says — a tough admission, considering she helped pass many of those reforms in Minnesota in 2016.

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