by Grace Merritt
Connecticut has begun to reduce the disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos in its prisons.
Since 2008, the numbers of black and Hispanic inmates have fallen by 15 percent each, while the number of white prisoners dropped by a slower 6 percent.
The drop is relatively small, but because of policy changes, shifting attitudes and a heightened awareness of racial profiling, state officials expect that the racial and ethnic disparities will continue to shrink.
This is significant in a state that has long had wide disparity gap. Connecticut had the dubious distinction of having the nation’s highest disparity between Hispanics and whites in the prison population in a 2007 study by The Sentencing Project.
The main reason for the shift is policy change and reform aimed at reducing the spiraling prison population, which peaked at 20,000 in Connecticut in 2008.
Many of these reforms aim to keep dangerous, predatory criminals behind bars and offer diversionary programs and other options for low-level, nonviolent offenders.
“We want the criminal justice system to focus on violent crimes, crimes involvingdomestic violence, urban gun violence, sexual assault- violent, predatory crimes,” said Michael P. Lawlor, who heads the state’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division.
“What we’re saying is if you give more options and resources to judges, police and prosecutors, then they’ll end up making decisions which result in sending dangerous predators to prison and not the people who don’t meet that definition,” Lawlor said.
This view, which has public support in Connecticut, has driven a wide range of changes from the decriminalization of possessing small amounts of marijuana, to sentencing reforms, to a greater awareness of racial profiling.
“It’s really a thousand small things acting together that are starting to result in drop in prison numbers, crime rate and racial disparity in prisons,” Lawlor said.
Lawlor said there is no disparity in the race of predatory criminals who commit murders, rapes and other heinous crimes. The numbers reflect the general population and cut across all demographics, he said. But minorities tend to get picked up and imprisoned more often for lower-level crimes, such as drug use, shoplifting, breach of peace, for a variety of reasons, he said.
Often these low-level offenders have a serious mental illness they are dealing with, along with substance abuse and homelessness, he said.
“If there are no other options, police will take them to jail. But if you provide other options it doesn’t need to happen. They need supervision, but prison is not the right place for them,” he said.
Connecticut’s policies are aimed at evaluating each offender’s risk factor, and diverting low-level offenders into drug rehabilitation or other programs rather than prison.
“All of those things are less expensive and much more effective than prison if you choose the right people to send there,” Lawlor said.
In recent years, Connecticut has begun to offer special training for police officers and ramped up risk assessment programs aimed at evaluating each offender’s risk factor.
The judicial system has also implemented a new “re-interview” program that can ask the court to consider lowering the bond of certain low-risk offenders who can’t post bond and are sitting in jail.
Some experts also believe that a heightened sensitivity to racial and ethnic disparities is playing a role in Connecticut.
“One very significant factor, in my opinion, is a real awareness of racial disparity in the prison system and in criminal justice in general. Just the fact that people are aware of it influences their behavior,” Lawlor said.
Bill Dyson, who chairs the state’s year-old racial profiling commission, said he also said he has begun to see an awareness of racial profiling by police.
“There is a change in attitude, a lessening of the hostility. It’s all changing,” he said.
Andrew Clark, acting executive director of the state’s Sentencing Commission, was more cautious.
“The trend is promising, but here’s a lot of work do to get it levels consistent with the general population,” Clark said.
As of January, there were 7,078 African Americans and 4,419 Latinos compared with 5,416 whites in Connecticut’s state prisons.
The 2007 study by the Sentencing Project found that Connecticut had highest Latino-to-white ratio in the country and the fourth highest black-to white-ratio. The study found that Connecticut’s number of black inmates was about average but became more pronounced because of a below-average number of whites in prison at the time.
It is difficult to compare how Connecticut stacks up to the rest of the country these days because there is little comparative data, according to experts. States handle prison populations differently and there hasn’t been much state-based research into national racial disparity trends, they said.
“I don’t think we track demographics state by state,” said Robert Coombs, spokesman for the Council of State Governments Justice Center. But changing sentencing or changing policies strategies that tend to affect a certain segment of the population will eventually make a difference, he said.
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said New York and New Jersey have also made strides in narrowing the disparity gap.
On a national level, some new drug policies have had a particularly pronounced affect on women, particularly black women, Mauer said.
In a Sentencing Project report issued earlier this year, they found a dramatic decrease in the number of incarcerated black women and an increase in the number of white women. The study found that in 2000, there were six black women for every white woman in jail. By 2009, the number of black women was cut by half, Mauer said.
He attributed this to changes in drug policies, particularly stepped up enforcement and harsher sentencing for methamphetatmine offenses, which tend to affect white and Latino women more than black women, he said.