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Native people are overrepresented in state prisons across the Mountain West, report shows

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Kate Ter Haar
Flickr Creative Commons
Nationwide, Native people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at a rate that's double the national average.

A new report shows the overrepresentation of Native Americans and Alaska Natives in state prison systems, and some of the greatest disparities are in the Mountain West.

In Wyoming, Native people make up just 2% of the state’s population but account for 7% of the state’s prison population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which analyzed 2021 data from both the Bureau of Justice Statistics and American Community Survey.

In Utah, Native people make up only 1% of all residents but 6% of all prisoners. Native people are also overrepresented in state prisons in Idaho (3.7% of prisoners), Colorado (3.4%) and Nevada (2.3%). In all three states, Native people make up 1.7% of the population.

Mike Wessler, communications director at the Prison Policy Initiative, said this raises the question of how these states approach challenges like poverty, mental health, and substance use.

“Our nation, these states, have treated these as criminal problems to solve rather than economic challenges or health challenges that they need to provide different solutions for,” Wessler said.

The only Mountain West to state to have a lower Native incarceration rate is New Mexico, where 11.2% of Native people make up the state population and 8.8% account for the prison population.

Nationwide, Native people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at a rate of 763 per 100,000 people. That’s more than double the national average (350 per 100,000) and more than four times higher than the incarceration rate of white people (181 per 100,000).

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.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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