Race matters State among worst in prison disparity
Connecticut ranks among the five states with the highest racial and ethnic disparities in its prison and jail systems, according to a research report released yesterday.
Blacks are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites in Connecticut, according to the report from the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that studies the justice system. The report said that is more than double the nation's average incarceration rate for blacks, as compared with whites.
Hispanics in Connecticut are nearly seven times more likely than whites to end up in prison, the report found, which is the largest gap in the country.
The report is based on statistics from the state Department of Correction. Researchers calculated how many out of 100,000 people in each group are incarcerated.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said the keys to cutting the racial prison gap include funding more drug treatment programs, rethinking mandatory minimum drug sentences and providing offenders with a support system when they leave prison.
Connecticut's high disparities come in part because whites are less likely to be incarcerated here than in other states, the report found.
Connecticut imprisons about 211 of every 100,000 white residents, compared with a national average of 412, the report found.
Only four states and the District of Columbia jail whites at a lower rate, the report found.
Connecticut incarcerates about 2,500 of every 100,000 black residents, which is just above the national average of 2,290.
000200000E27000007F2 E21,That shows the disparities may be more between the rich and the poor, said Rep. Mike Lawlor, D-East Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Connecticut's white population is unusually rich, meaning more white offenders can afford the best attorneys and avoid prison than minority defendants, Lawlor said.
"We don't have a lot of poor white people compared with other states," he said.
Still, Lawlor said the state must close the racial and ethnic gaps.
"It's unfair and unjustifiable," he said.
About 70 percent of the state's 18,892 prison and jail inmates are black or Hispanic, according to state Department of Correction statistics.
Connecticut has taken steps to reduce the racial gap, Mauer said. The legislature in 2005 increased the amount of crack cocaine a person must carry to be charged with planning to sell drugs. A commission of legislators, officials and policy experts is studying sentencing reform, including possibly changing the state's mandatory minimum drug laws.
Nearly two-thirds of defendants charged with mandatory minimum drug crimes are black or Hispanic, state statistics show.
Many legislators and police officials have discussed reducing the size of so-called drug-free zones penalties are increased for anyone caught selling drugs within 1,500 feet of a school, housing complex or day care center.
Reports have found that the rule is unfair to minorities and inner-city residents, because almost all the territory in a typical city falls within a drug-free zone.
"The discussion is out there in Connecticut," Mauer said. "That's more than we've seen in many other states."
Officials have said the state is aware of the racial gap and is moving to close it. One way to do so is to provide treatment to prisoners and help them develop employment skills to make sure they don't offend again, experts said. That could break the cycle of imprisonment in the state's most impoverished neighborhoods, they said.
"The overrepresentation of people of color in our correctional institutions has long been of great concern to me," Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz said. "While I can't control who is placed in my custody, I strive to address literacy, employment skills, sobriety and housing during incarceration, so that these individuals are prepared for a productive re-entry to their communities."
The Sentencing Project in March designated Connecticut a leading state in keeping former offenders from returning to prison. A February report from Pew Charitable Trusts named Connecticut as one of three states expected to see no growth in its prison population through 2011.
Judicial officials said they hope that trying 16- and 17-year-olds in juvenile court starting in 2010 also will help narrow the racial and ethnic gaps by keeping teens out of adult prisons.
The aim is to place most juvenile offenders in counseling programs and other alternatives to prison, officials said.
"There is no easy solution," said Judge William Lavery, the state's chief court administrator. "But I think we took a positive step."
The goal is the same for adult offenders, Lawlor said. Treating people outside of prison will save the state money and keep offenders from committing second and third offenses.
"There are other ways to punish people and get something good out of it," Lawlor said.
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