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Ginnie Graham: Oklahoma prisons show symptoms of the disease of systemic racism

Ginnie Graham: Oklahoma prisons show symptoms of the disease of systemic racism


Four years ago, the Massachusetts Supreme Court chief justice challenged the best minds in his state to figure out why the prisons are filled disproportionately with Black and Hispanic people.

It’s wasn’t complicated math to see a great disparity among white, Black and Hispanic prisoners.

The state’s population is 74% white, 6.5% Black and 8.7% Hispanic. Yet, the prison composition breaks down to about 59% white, 17% Black and 18% Hispanic.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants wanted a deeper understanding and proposed a collaborative project with Harvard Law School to take “a hard look at how we can better fulfill our promise to provide equal justice for every litigant.”

This month, that report was released by the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard. Researchers examined more than a million cases for a 100-page analysis.

The methodology corrected for influences such as neighborhood demographics and crime severity, but found racial disparities were still unavoidable.

It found that Black and Hispanic people are over-represented at each level of the criminal justice system and receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts.

That means the disparity begins well before court convenes and continues through the term of incarceration.

In an interview with The Harvard Gazette, one of its researchers, Brook Hopkins, noted, “It’s not just disparate treatment by police, prosecutors or judges once somebody is in the system. There is also a legislative piece. We have certain behaviors that are considered a risk to public safety that are treated differently based on stereotypes about who engages in those behaviors.”

The Massachusetts report is notable for having leadership and cooperation from the state’s highest court officer, showing a desire for change.

While most agencies and individuals were willing to hand over data for analysis, some information was difficult to get. Either agencies don’t collect information, don’t collect it efficiently or are reluctant to share.

This type of work is tedious, difficult and necessary. There ought to be more seamless data collections at all levels as a matter of good governance and transparency.

Oklahoma could use such a massive project with leaders from across the spectrum.

The state has spent decades as No.1 in female incarceration and always seems to linger in the top five for overall prison rates, currently sitting in fourth place.

Mass incarceration is bankrupting our state, economically and in the harm it does to families.

Voters started turning it around three years ago with the passage of state questions that re-classified some non-violent drug crimes.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has approved thousands of paroles, including setting a single-day record.

In November, Oklahoma voters have a chance to approve more sentencing reform. Several legislators also have pledged to restructure the cash bail system to end keeping poor people in jail just for being poor.

Much work has been put into alleviating Oklahoma’s gender bias to reduce the embarrassingly high incarceration of women.

But does Oklahoma have the same systemic racism that Massachusetts has documented?

It appears Oklahoma has symptoms of that disease, according to new findings by Open Justice Oklahoma, a program of the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

Using 2010 census data, researchers at the Prison Policy Initiative found Black, Hispanic and American Indian people are over-represented in the state’s prisons and jails. These new findings show how little progress has been made in the past decade.

Black Oklahomans are put in jails and prisons at a rate of five times higher than white people, more than twice as high as Hispanic residents and 50% higher than American Indian people.

“We’ve found that these disparities persist,” said Ryan Gentzler, director of Open Justice Oklahoma.

Those are similar to Oklahoma’s prison-only populations using June Department of Corrections data. Comparisons to Hispanic representation weren’t possible due to outdated census information.

The highlights:

Black Oklahomans are imprisoned at a rate five times higher, and American Indian Oklahomans more than two times higher than white Oklahomans.

One in 20 Black Oklahoma males are in prison, a rate five times that of white males. One in 50 American Indian males are in prison, twice as high as the rate for white men.

Native women are imprisoned at 3½ times higher and Black women three times higher than white women.

This is just the top layer of data; it doesn’t answer the why or give solutions.

Statistics are great at crystallizing a problem or proving a theory, but it sanitizes the damage. Behind every number are people, thousands of people.

Oklahoma’s mass incarceration problem is complex and multi-faceted, starting with how police stop offenders and stretching to how and who gets released.

From a broader perspective, it reflects the under-resourced public education, mental health care and workforce development systems.

But race is a factor. It has always been a factor, in overt and subconscious ways.

Oklahoma needs to continue its smart-on-crime reforms to benefit everyone. It could also take a lesson from Massachusetts about confronting bias.

Start by acknowledging the signs of a problem then get serious about fixing it.

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Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376


Twitter: @GinnieGraham

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