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Readings for Reflection: January 2017
from the Committee on Ministry and Counsel

In suggesting this reading, I am aware that the selection is mostly giving statistical data regarding the ratio of people of color to Caucasians imprisoned in our country. However, it has caused me to do a great deal of reflection about how and why this is so prevalent and to ask myself how I participate in a culture/system that practices this level of discrimination and injustice. My regular visiting of men in the Milan Federal Correctional Institution gives me the opportunity to experience in a personal way how the system destructively impacts the men’s lives. I find this article’s information touches my heart and leads me to think deeply about what needs to change.
                                                                                                      ~ Ruth Carey

The Color of Justice

As states around the country attempt innovative approaches to downsize prisons, one feature bears direct attention, yet is frequently omitted from reform discussions. As revealed in our report, “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” there are staggering racial and ethnic disparities that permeate state prisons from coast to coast. Looking at all of the states, we found an average black/white disparity ratio of 5-to-1 and a Hispanic/white disparity of 1.4-to-1. Report author Ashley Nellis noted that “an unwarranted level of incarceration that worsens racial disparities is problematic not only for the impacted group, but for society as a whole, weakening the justice system’s potential and undermining perceptions of justice.”

In this analysis, we documented the rates of incarceration for whites, African Americans, and Hispanics, providing racial and ethnic composition of the prison population as well as rates of disparity for each state.* This systematic look revealed racial disparities as high as 12-to-1 in New Jersey, and the lowest disparity still reflecting that African Americans are incarcerated at more than twice the rate of whites. In some states the results are even more unsettling: in Oklahoma, which maintains the highest black incarceration rate in the nation, one of every 15 black men is in state prison.

Criminal justice reform has become a regular component of mainstream domestic policy discussions over the last several years. States are experimenting with diversion approaches that can reduce prison populations without harms to public safety. At the same time, there is not sufficient attention to the chronic disparities that pervade state prisons, and without this acknowledgment the country is unlikely to experience the serious, sustainable reforms that are needed. Overall the pace of criminal justice reform has been too slow as well as too modest in its goals. Accelerated reforms that deliberately incorporate the goal of racial justice will lead to a system that is both much smaller and fairer.

“The Color of Justice” is excerpted with permission from “Sentencing Times,” newsletter of The Sentencing Project in Washington, DC, Fall 2016, written by Marc Mauer. To read the entire article, see

* In this study “rate of incarceration” refers to the number of white, black, and Hispanic prisoners for each 100,000 persons in the general population from the respective racial or ethnic group. The “disparity ratio” compares the rates of incarceration among the racial or ethnic groups. Thus the “black/white disparity ratio of 5-to-1” for all 50 states reflects (approximately) incarceration rates of 1408 per 100,000 blacks and 275 per 100,000 whites.

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