Startling headlines announced that Minnesota state prisons suffer the nation's worst racial disparities.
According to a new study by Human Rights Watch, adult black males in Minnesota are 27 times more likely than adult white males to be in state prison. It's the biggest gap among 49 states studied, and almost three times the nationwide disparity, which Human Rights Watch terms ''a national scandal.''
Understandably, Minnesota officials have reacted to this news with distress and vows to examine the causes. Human Rights Watch attributes the disparities largely to the essential racism of the nation's ''war on drugs.''
African-Americans' extreme overrepresentation in prison is troubling no matter what its causes -- whether it reflects injustice in the criminal justice system, problems in the black community, or both.
But a closer look at the data in the Human Rights Watch study indicates that Minnesota's specific situation is more complicated, and perhaps less sinister, than last week's headlines suggested.
Among the additional facts about Minnesota prison policy that ought to be noted are these:
-- Minnesota's incarceration rate among adult black males (4,169) ranks 30th, and is 10 percent below the nationwide rate.
HRW's data also shows that only 21 percent of African-Americans admitted to Minnesota prisons in 1996 were drug offenders, the third lowest rate reported and about half the national rate. Among new white prisoners in Minnesota, 13 percent were drug offenders, again about half the national rate.
In short, whatever is causing Minnesota's unusually high racial prison disparity, the HRW data seems to show it is not that the state is unusually eager to imprison nonviolent drug offenders.
All the same, HRW is almost certainly right that racial disparities have been increased by the drug war's focus on crack cocaine, which is more often used by blacks than whites, rather than on powder cocaine and other drugs more popular among whites.
Most crime is interracial. White criminals usually prey on other whites; black criminals usually prey on other blacks.
Perhaps the message for Minnesota in the Human Rights Watch study is that more Minnesota whites should be in prison. Whites are well represented among certain offenders -- such as hard-core repeat drunken drivers -- who do not receive state prison time, and probably should.
But before we seek to reduce racial disparities by backing off law-enforcement tactics that lock up lots of African-American criminals, we should ask whether that is in the interests of the law-abiding black population.
-- St. Paul Pioneer Press
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