Three decades ago, Washington headlonged into a dubious ranking, top banana for prisons with a disproportionately high number of minority inmates. In 1980, researcher Scott Christianson spotlighted what corrections honchos already knew, that nearly a third of Washington prisoners were African American (in a state with a modest 3 percent black population.) Christianson’s findings were a constructive irritant, mobilizing justice advocates to dig deeper into systemic causes. Controlling for other factors, why does race affect felony processing in Washington? Why do minority juveniles get tougher sentences than non-minority youth freighted with near-identical rap sheets?
According to a 2011 report by the Task Force on Race and the Criminal Justice System, African-American defendants facing felony drug charges in Washington are 62 percent more likely to be sent to prison than non-minority offenders. Passive acceptance of the data — a behind-bars world invisible to most Washingtonians — is fueled by a canard, that minorities are committing most of the crime. As the Task Force report underlines, “race and ethnicity influence criminal-justice outcomes over and above the commission rate.” Remedies demand sensible reforms of juvenile-court referrals, pre-trial release decisions, and sentencing practices that, for minorities, favor prison over community supervision.
Institutional bias is still easier to correct than human nature. Education is one strategy, disabusing probation officers, law enforcement and court personnel of stereotypes that marginalize African-American males. The education imperative clearly extends to offenders themselves, with a connect-the-dots link between high-school dropout rates and criminal convictions.
Prisoner demographics also skew data on the progress (or lack thereof) of young African-American men. University of Washington Professor Becky Pettit just published a study, “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” that brings the info wrinkle into focus. As the New York Times Sam Roberts reports regarding Pettit, “If inmates were counted, she estimates, the black high school dropout rate would soar to 19 percent and the share of dropouts who are employed would plunge to 26 percent — far more dire than the statistics usually cited.” Imprisoned African-American men are outliers, not incorporated into aggregate figures. As a result, encouraging news about African-American voter participation, employment and education gets embellished.
Washingtonians look at problems as tractable. Often they are. As Pettit’s research illustrates, policymakers need in-context information to make clear-eyed reforms to Washington’s criminal-justice (and education) system. Without reforms — an invisible prison population or no — we reject our own values. “It isn’t what you know that causes all the trouble,” Mark Twain once said. “It’s what you know that isn’t so.”