A look at racism in the prison system

Prisons exemplify racism -- the wielding of power in favor of an ethnic or racial group. One black man in three will go to prison. Prisons are placed in white rural areas, far from the prisoners' homes and families. These men (and women) are arrested, prosecuted, defended and ultimately guarded mostly by white men.

Of course, to know what is unjust racism and what is just punishment for crime, one has to look at individual cases. That is just what ProPublica has done with a small segment of prison data on presidential pardons.

The short summary is that when everything is taken into account, white criminals seeking presidential pardons are almost four times as likely to succeed as people of color.

The researchers looked at demographic data, criminal history and congressional interest in cases. They looked at 1,729 individuals who applied for pardons and the 189 who received them during the tenure of President George W. Bush. The president did not know the race of those he pardoned, but the staff who made the recommendations knew.

In raw percentages, 12 percent of white petitioners received pardons; 10 percent of Hispanics received pardons; no African-Americans received pardons.

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It's a discouraging study, but not a surprising one. The data is akin to that being amassed about traffic stops. The numbers weigh on me. I keep remembering the many black men and women who were prosecuted more fiercely, defended more weakly and judged more harshly than whites.

One remedy is simply to shorten everyone's sentences. Another, certainly, is to follow the federal example and reduce the disparity in sentencing for possession of powdered and crack cocaine. Yet another remedy is to establish objective criteria for parole boards.

In response to my last blog, "Outsider" pasted an article about imprisonment of blacks published in The Guardian. It is worth reading.


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