Lawmakers must confront racial disparities head-on as they reform the justice system

The need for criminal justice reform is well illustrated by outrageous top-level statistics showing Oklahoma’s imprisonment rate among the highest in the nation (about 700 in prison per 100,000 residents), and a need to bring down spending on corrections (nearly half a billion dollars in FY 2016 and yet vastly insufficient to safely operate our prisons). While those numbers are staggering, they hide deep racial disparities. Mass incarceration is bad for the state as a whole, but the damage it is doing to minority communities is even worse.

As lawmakers take another run at criminal justice reform this year, they should heed the examples of other states and include reducing racial disparities as a core goal. If they don’t, they risk making the problem worse.

Racial disparity in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system by the numbers

In Oklahoma as in the rest of the country, the disadvantages that people of color face in the criminal justice system begin at a very young age in school and continues through rates of arrests and incarceration in adulthood. These disparities in treatment by the justice system cannot be blamed solely on differences in criminal activity. Oklahomans of color are punished more harshly than white Oklahomans for the same offenses at every point in the justice system:

The drivers of these disparities include policy and practice, implicit bias by decision makers in the justice system, and the structural disadvantage of minorities. Explaining these causes is beyond the scope of this post, but researchers at the Sentencing Project summarized it well, saying,

Once arrested, people of color are also likely to be charged more harshly than whites; once charged, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences – all after accounting for relevant legal differences such as crime severity and criminal history.

Reducing the prison population doesn’t always reduce racial disparity

As we pursue reforms to reduce incarceration, we must be careful not to deepen the injustice of racial disparities. The most stark example of falling incarceration and persistent racial disparity comes from New Jersey. The state began its ambitious decarceration agenda in 2001 with reforms that granted parole at much higher rates and reduced the rate of revocations, and continued through revising mandatory minimums for drug crimes in 2010 and 2013.  The state’s prison population fell by 28 percent while crime fell by 30 percent between 2000 and 2016, making it a national leader in reducing incarceration. Despite being home to well over two and a half as many people as Oklahoma, New Jersey’s prisons held about 8,000 fewer people in 2015. 

But for all of its progress on bringing its prison population down, New Jersey’s black incarceration rate is still over twelve times higher than its white incarceration rate, the highest disparity in the country. People of color are still clearly disadvantaged by implicit bias. Even though harsher punishments for drug crimes in school zones are now left to the discretion of the judge, for example, people of color are still more likely to be charged with that offense.

New Jersey state leaders are paying attention, and this year they are considering a bill to require racial impact statements on criminal justice bills. Just as fiscal impact statements estimate a bill’s effect on the budget, racial impact statements – already the law in Iowa and a few other states – estimate a bill’s effects on racial disparities. While they are far from a silver bullet in the fight to reduce racial disparities, evidence so far indicates they can have a positive effect on legislative decisions.

Reducing racial disparity will require concerted effort

The effects of these racial disparities reach far beyond minority communities. A recent study estimated the annual economic burden of incarceration across the country, including corrections as well as social costs, at one trillion dollars, with more than half of the costs being borne by families, children, and community members. We all suffer when such a large portion of our communities is held back by the unequal enforcement of the law.

Because the drivers of racial disparity in the criminal justice system pervade every step of the process, truly addressing them will require examining each decision point. From arrest to adjudication to incarceration to parole, there is no shortage of places to start. Advocacy groups like ACLU Oklahoma and the Sentencing Project are beginning to draw attention to the problem; lawmakers would do well to heed their call, and to confront the issue head-on.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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