Oregon ranks seventh in the nation in the disproportionate number of incarcerated African Americans, far outpacing the national average according to a recently released report of The Sentencing Project, in Washington, D.C.
Less than 2 percent of Oregonians are African American, but more than 9 percent of the state's prison population is black, according to the report, which analyzed data from the United States Census and the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Oregon imprisons 2,061 African Americans per 100,000 black residents, researchers found. The national average is much lower, at 1,408 incarcerated blacks for every 100,000 black residents. Oklahoma leads the nation with 2,625 incarcerated African Americans per 100,000 black residents.
"To hear that Oregon ranks number seven — that's very disturbing," said Benny Williams, president of the Salem-Keizer chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Dr. Ashley Nellis, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project and the report's author, notes that such racial disparities in incarceration have a profound impact upon the community. If one racial group is over-incarcerated, Nellis notes, that can fundamentally change a community.
"We're seeing a lot more young people being arrested and being locked up," agreed Williams. That has a pronounced effect on communities of color, he said.
Dr. Kelsey Antle of the Brennan Center for Justice blames the mass incarceration policies of the 1980s and 1990s for the over-incarceration of minorities. While race-neutral on their face, said Antle, those policies disproportionately affected black people who were charged with nonviolent drug offenses. Nellis agreed that prison alternatives should be used to address such crimes.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws are also to blame, according to Antle. "Tying judges' hands in that way has not been associated with a decrease in crime," she said.
Marion County District Attorney Walt Beglau said he was aware of the report and that he is concerned about racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Yet, while acknowledging that prosecutors play a role, Beglau offered no solution.
A different report recently found that African Americans are seven times more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites in Multnomah County, Oregon.
Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill admitted then that it is crucial that communities of color have confidence in the criminal justice system, and he is troubled by the disparity in who is being sent to prison.
"My office is dedicated to understanding what this study means by continuing to
collaborate with the community and other agency partners, and by engaging in a more robust study into arrest and sentencing practices," said Underhill.
"What this report fundamentally says is, if you are African American . . . you will be punished more severely if you intersect with the criminal justice system," said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. "This report affirms what communities of color have known for a long time."
Source: The Statesman Journal
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