Friday, June 10, 2005

race and punishment

Minnesota has long had some of the greatest racial disparities in punishment in the nation, with African American incarceration rates over 10 times those of white rates for several years. In fact, whites have represented a minority of prisoners in a state that is 87% white overall. Today's Star-Tribune reports that white prisoners are now back in the majority in Minnesota prisons: 59% of MN prisoners are white today. This is due in large part to a deluge of white methamphetamine cases (only about 1 in 20 meth prisoners is non-white) and longer sentences for sex offenders, who also tend to be white.

Minnesota has historically had a very low incarceration rate, but is experiencing rapid (though not California-style) expansion the past few years. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are now calling for reform, early release, and other programs that would reduce the economic and social costs of incarceration. Now connect the dots: "The surest way to get sentencing reform is to over-incarcerate white people," said Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis..."All of a sudden, folks want to talk about redemption." When I read Ellison's quote, I was reminded of Naomi Murakawa's excellent work on mandatory minimum sentences. The last time that the number of mandatory minimums was actually reduced came in the Nixon administration -- when white college kids were sent away for long prison terms for drug offenses.

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