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Prison Rates Represent True Colors of Justice

Prison Rates Represent True Colors of Justice

The United States has the highest prison population in the world – more than 2 million people are incarcerated. The rate of those imprisoned in the U.S. is 724 out every 100,000 people. However, the number of incarcerated people does not reflect the overall demographic profile of the U.S. The rate of incarceration is substantially higher in African American and Latino communities.

To fully grasp the stark racial disparities in the prison population, it’s important to compare the numbers with the general U.S. population. For example, African Americans account for 35.4% of prisoners but only 13.2% of the population. In fact, blacks and Latinos together represent 70% of the U.S. prison population while only 30% of the population as a whole.

To the uninformed, it could appear that these numbers are due to the fact that people of color commit more crimes. However, this is untrue. The racial disparities in the prison population are reflective of those seen plainly in U.S. poverty rates. Historically, the rates of people of color living in poverty are double those of the greater population. As recently as 2015, there were 24.1% of blacks living in poverty compared to 11.4% of whites.

What these numbers indicate is far more complicated than simply alleging that the criminal justice system is racially biased. Clearly, poverty rates are inextricably related to incarceration rates. There has been much recent discussion, news coverage and political movements related to racial discrimination and the use of force at the local law enforcement level. But what happens after an individual is arrested can be equally imbalanced, and result in lifelong consequences depending on their socioeconomic position. Simply put, the poorer you are the more likely you will serve a prison sentence.

The socioeconomic factors are apparent once someone is arrested. This can begin as early as at the time of bail. Those who have the ability to post bail to remain out of custody have a distinct advantage over those who cannot afford bail and remain in local jail while their case is adjudicated.

Those with the economic ability to hire a highly-qualified private criminal defense attorney, have a much better opportunity in defending their criminal case—or avoid the worst sentencing. When a case cannot be defended from a legal or factual basis, a private attorney will often work to find alternatives to a lengthy prison sentence. Private attorneys often hire experts to prepare reports for the courts offering mitigating factors as to why a person should not be sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Often, the private attorney will seek to have their clients pursue treatment in a residential program for substance abuse or mental health issues instead of a prison sentence. Or, they can serve time in private, local jails rather than in a county or state prison facility.

For many of those arrested and facing criminal charges, especially from communities of color with higher poverty rates, posting bail, private attorneys, expert witnesses and residential treatment programs are not an option. This means staying incarcerated while defending a case and being represented by an overworked, underfunded public defender.

While public defenders are well-educated civil servants, they are a largely unsupported part of the criminal justice system. Their services remain in high demand; many public defenders are saddled with excessive caseloads, and lack the capacity to give each one the attention it deserves. In a recent lawsuit against the state of Washington, it was revealed that public defenders were spending less than one hour per case on average.

It’s no surprise that with this level of representation, so many cases result in the worst kind of penalties for lower-level offenses. For the discriminated communities of color, those living in poverty and vulnerable to arrest, the inability to afford a private attorney often results in long-term incarceration.

While the U.S. prison population dropped a small 2% last year, the disparities between black and Hispanic prisoners and their white counterparts remain the same. The demand for reform across the criminal justice system is growing. One essential part of that change must be addressing the consequences of an unjustly inadequate defense.


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