Report cites racial disparity in imprisonment

Published 9:04 am Thursday, January 4, 2024

Tennessee’s incarceration rates stand out internationally, and there are glaring racial disparities in prisons and jails. New research examines the key causes of inequalities and offers remedies.
According to the Sentencing Project, one in three Black men in 1981 was likely to be imprisoned at some point in his life. By 2001, the number decreased to one in five.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, co-director of research for The Sentencing Project and co-author of the report, said the figure is still troubling. She explained laws and policies appearing to be neutral are among the drivers of racial disparities.
“An example that a lot of people are familiar with is sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine,” Ghandnoosh explained. “People are getting a longer sentence if they are caught with crack than if they’re caught with the same amount of powder cocaine. That disproportionately impacts Black Americans.”
The report stated the Department of Justice enacted a charging policy in 2022 with the aim of eliminating the disparity. Tennessee has an incarceration rate of 838 per 100,000 people, much higher than the rates of the U.S. and other founding NATO countries.
The report found the punitive policies such as cash bail disproportionately put people of color at a disadvantage. Ghandnoosh pointed out racial bias also influences criminal legal practitioners’ use of discretion.
“A lot of research shows that when prosecutors are faced with two people, Black versus white, and they’ve committed the same crime, they’re more likely to charge the Black individual with a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence than they are to charge the white individual who’s committed the same crime,” Ghandnoosh noted.
Ghandnoosh added a number of jurisdictions around the country now have second-look laws. For example, Washington D.C. allows many incarcerated people who have already served 15 years to petition the courts for resentencing, helping to curb extreme prison terms.

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