NEW YORK (AP) -- Minnesota has the worst record of racial disparity in the rate at which blacks and whites land in prison, according to a study of 49 states.
Black men in Minnesota are 27 times more likely to be locked up than white men, said Human Rights Watch, a research and advocacy group.
Only the District of Columbia has a worse ratio, said the group, which found that half the states locked up black men at rates at least nine times greater than white men, the study found.
''The racial disparities are a national scandal,'' said Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, whose study cited the war on drugs as a factor in the disparities. ''Black and white drug offenders get radically different treatment in the American justice system. This is not only profoundly unfair to blacks, it also corrodes the American ideal of equal justice for all.''
Jamie Fellner, who conducted the study using U.S. Justice Department data, said there are several possible reasons Minnesota has such wide disparities.
Most blacks in Minnesota live in urban areas, she said, where crime and arrest rates are higher and urban areas experience more serious crime.
But the driving force behind the disparities is the national war on drugs' focus on crack cocaine, she said.
In Minnesota, black men are nearly 40 times more likely to go to prison for a drug offense than whites, the study found.
But Human Rights Watch officials said five times as many whites in the United States use drugs as blacks and most drug offenders in the criminal justice system are white.
Though whites outnumber blacks in Minnesota prisons, the study took into account the racial makeup of the state population to measure racial disparity.
The study found that one out of every 24 black men in Minnesota is in prison. The number for white men is one in 642.
Between 1988 and 1996, the most recent year studied, the incarceration rate for black Minnesotans increased 73 percent. The rate for whites rose 41 percent.
State Corrections Commissioner Sheryl Ramstad Hvass said the study shows the need for ''honest self-evaluation.''
''It's going to take some time and research and self-examination by all participants in the criminal justice system to understand the issue and how we can make some changes,'' she said.
But state Sen. Jane Ranum, a Minneapolis DFLer and Hennepin County prosecutor, said if legislators took a tough stand on crimes most often committed by whites, the prison numbers might be different.
First, she said, Minnesota legislators did not find a way to make repeat drunken driving a felony. Ranum said the reason may have something to do with more whites being convicted of drunken driving than, say, a crime involving crack cocaine.
''We deal with it one way where it comes down disproportionately on people of color. And yet with alcohol, which is just as destructive (as drugs), we don't,'' she said.
Legislators, daunted by the cost of building more prisons, defeated a proposal to make repeat drunken driving a felony, Ranum said.
The other question is whether the disparities are a product of inner-city police efforts to arrest people for lower-level crimes with the goal of catching felons, she said. If police used the same strategy in the suburbs, she said, ''what would we find?''
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