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Study shows the racial divide in prisons is narrowing

The racial divide in state prison populations in Connecticut and around the country has narrowed considerably in recent years according to a recent report, but African Americans are still incarcerated at disproportionately high rates. The Council on Criminal Justice released its findings on Dec. 3. The nonpartisan group found that there are currently six African Americans behind state prison bars for every white inmate. That ratio was 9-1 about two decades ago.

The incarceration study reveals that racial disparities have also fallen among people on probation and parole. However, the researchers point out that much still needs to be done to address the mass incarceration of African Americans in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the black Americans sent to prison during this time were convicted of violating the nation's drug laws and sentenced under the provisions of laws like the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

Black Americans were 15 times more likely than whites to be imprisoned on drug charges in 2000. That figure has now fallen to six times more likely. However, the fall is probably connected to changes in the illegal narcotics market and not police or prosecutorial reforms according to the researchers. In the 1980s and 1990s, most drug defendants were accused of possessing or distributing cocaine or marijuana. Drugs like methamphetamine and opioids, which are not commonly associated with the African American community, are the primary focus of law enforcement today.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may urge prosecutors to consider alternatives to incarceration when nonviolent offenders face criminal charges for behavior that would be legal in many states. Attorneys might strengthen these arguments by citing studies that show how rehabilitation for minor offenders is far more beneficial for society as a whole than punishment. Attorneys may also cite mitigating factors such as a supportive family, a previously unblemished record and genuine regret.

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