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Report spotlights striking racial disparities in Mountain West state prisons

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News Brief

Racial disparities are deeply pronounced in state prisons across the nation – and some Western states top the list.

A new report from the Sentencing Project shows Montana and Idaho have some of the highest rates of Black incarceration. Idaho also has one of the highest incarceration rates of Latinx people, along with Wyoming and Colorado.

In Idaho, one in 42 Black residents are imprisoned, according to the report.

Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, has been studying racial and ethnic incarceration rates for years and one thing struck her most about these numbers – “that racial disparity is really not budging very much in our prison system, despite there being sort of national calls for action.”

Nellis says low Black and Latinx populations in some Western states could skew the data somewhat. Still, the numbers are striking. In Colorado, for example, Black people are incarcerated at a rate roughly seven times that of white people.

Meanwhile, in local jails, Native Americans are incarcerated at more than double the rate of white people, according to national data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative.

These numbers may not accurately reflect the scope of the problem. The Prison Policy Initiative says Native people sometimes are grouped into the “other” racial and ethnic category. Researchers often rely on data from a state’s department of corrections, according to Nellis, which is not always accurate in its recording of Latinx people either.

“So a lot of times what happens is that a person who is Latinx is more likely to be counted as a white person and that lowers the figures for that group, but it also inflates the figures for whites,” she said. “But even with all of that, we still have this 1.3-to-one ethnic disparity nationally, but it's likely much higher.”

The report recommends several solutions, such as eliminating mandatory minimum sentences.

“All states have some amount of mandatory minimums, which we know are an accelerant to racial disparity,” she said. “And they have caused really nothing but harm, and have not led to any sort of improvements in public safety.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 KUNC

Robyn Vincent
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