Guest Commentary

Kansas must address racial disparities in its prisons to fix its prison crisis

El Dorado Correctional Facility in 2011.
El Dorado Correctional Facility in 2011. File photo

To address prison overcrowding, Kansas must understand the racial disparities that exist in our system of mass incarceration, how they fuel our ballooning prison population, and potential remedies.

Our state prison population does not reflect the Kansas population on race. According to 2018 data from the Kansas Department of Corrections, 28% of our adult prisoners are African-American, 12% Hispanic, 3% Native American, and 1% Asian. The 2010 Census shows that Kansas is 6% African-American, 12% Hispanic, 1% Native American, and 3% Asian.

So, African Americans are represented in our prison population at nearly five times their share of the Kansas population, and Native Americans three times. Racial disparities also exist among juveniles in detention in Kansas, where 32% are black and 23% Hispanic.

Our prison population skews in other important ways, too. Among adult prisoners, 36% have less than a high school education. And 33% are diagnosed with a serious to severe mental illness, underscoring how prisons compensate for the decline of state psychiatric hospitals.

On race, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the national imprisonment rate among black men has dropped by about 20% since 2000. Experts tie this to declining crime rates, shifts in drug enforcement toward opioids and meth, and criminal justice reform focused on urban communities. Consequently, as prison populations have declined in most states, the disparity in imprisonment between blacks and whites has shrunk, though not disappeared.

In Kansas though, our prison population has grown, African-Americans have declined from 36% of the adult prison population in 2001, according to the Kansas Department of Corrections. That represents progress, though that decline has stagnated in recent years.

Nationally, Americans seem more aware of how racial disparities in prison are driven by differences in poverty and educational opportunities, drug laws and their enforcement, policing inequities, legal representation inequities and sentencing disparities, among other factors.

But good data on Kansas is scarce. Challenge one in addressing the racial disparity in Kansas prisons is better studying and understanding how national factors that create this difference work specifically in Kansas.

Challenge two is policy. The upside to Kansas lagging other states on criminal justice reform is that we can learn from their experiences, though their approaches will not always fit well in Kansas.

Take Georgia. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, former Republican Gov. Nathan Deal spearheaded bipartisan criminal justice reform measures, including “accountability courts” that provide prison alternatives for non-violent or mentally ill offenders and redefining what constitutes a “felony.” Though imperfect, Georgia has shrunk its prison population, cut the imprisonment rate of African-Americans even more dramatically, and saved tens of millions of dollars.

Other states have tackled minimum mandatory sentencing, three strikes laws, indigent defense and other factors that have exacerbated racial disparities in their respective prisons.

Challenge three is spine. Many reform advocates de-emphasize race, perhaps thinking it makes the issue divisive. But avoiding hard truths serves no good. This leaves reform opponents as frequently the ones emphasizing race, often implicitly in their language or which violent offenders they cherry pick to mischaracterize reform proposals.

One column cannot adequately address this topic — especially policy complexities, moral justice and the human impact. But to tackle this problem intelligently, we should not treat the issue as color blind when our prison crisis is inseparable from race.

Patrick Miller is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
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