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NCIA Report Finds Prison Race Statistics Distorted

A report released in May 2001, says that Hispanic/Latino prisoners are often classified in a variety of racial categories, which results in a distortion of prison statistics reporting the racial composition of American prison populations.

The research report, Masking The Divide: How Officially Reported Prison Statistics Distort the Racial and Ethnic Realities of Prison Growth , was prepared by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA). The central premise of the report is that "without distinguishing between Hispanic/Latinos, whites, and African Americans, the number of white prisoners is significantly overstated." According to the Census Bureau, more than 90 percent of Hispanic/Latinos in America choose "white" as their race. While the census has attempted to differentiate non-Hispanics of any race from Hispanic/Latinos, prison statistics have not followed suit, the report says.

Looking at 1985 prison statistics, the researchers determined that white prisoners were overestimated by 22 percent or 47,276 more than their actual number because thousands of Hispanic/Latinos were included in the count of white prisoners. Whites were reported to be 52 percent of the total prison population in 1985 when they actually constituted only 42.5 percent. Because very few Hispanic/Latinos identify African American as their race, the reported percent of the total prison population that is African American remains virtually unchanged, from 45.2 percent to 44.7 percent. Hispanic/Latinos accounted for 11 percent of the prison population in 1985.

By 1997 (the most recent data available) the reported white percentage of the prison population had dropped from 52 percent in 1985 to 41 percent. Most states included Hispanic/Latinos with whites, which the report says inflated reporting of white incarceration by 17 percent or 74, 074. This brings the percent of the prison population that is white down to 35 percent while white nonHispanics are 75 percent of the adult population. African Americans are 47 percent of the prison population (11 percent of the adult population) and Hispanic/Latinos increased to 16 percent of all prisoners (10 percent of the adult population). What was reported in 1997 to be a 19 percent difference between whites (40.7%) and nonwhites (59.3%) is actually a much wider 30 percent difference when Hispanic/Latinos are removed from the other racial categories.

The report found that of eleven states examined, the data showed all categorized some or all Hispanic/Latinos as white for at least one of the two years 1985 and 1997. New York, for example, reported that nearly half (49%) of its prison population was white in 1985 when it was actually closer to half of that (27%). In 1997, the reported white prison population was 43 percent when in reality the researchers found it was only 18.3 percent after Hispanic/Latinos were removed from the white figures.

The report concludes that "communities of color are far and away bearing the brunt of the escalation in the prison population." New York leads the way. Between 1985 and 1997, as the state's prison population doubled, more than 90 percent of the added prisoners were from communities of color. In 37 states nonwhites accounted for more than half the growth in the number of prisoners. Yet in only Hawaii and the District of Columbia does the adult nonwhite population outnumber the white population. Fractionally, the report found that nonwhites accounted for 70 percent of the prisoner population growth between 1985 and 1997.

Several recommendations are mace by the report, including adopting uniform guidelines for gathering and reporting prisoner data on race and ethnicity, with a specific category for Hispanic/Latino prisoners; assessing imbalances between the racial and ethnic composition of the general population and the crime rate; and ending the systematic use of civil disabilities resulting from criminal convictions.

The NCIA is a nonprofit organization that promotes fair and humane treatment for those who come in contact with justice and human services systems, and provides alternatives to institutionalization. The organization can be contacted by writing to: NCIA, 3125 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305; or their website:

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