Racial Disparities in Prisons Decline Nationally, Yet Persist in Illinois

A new report from The Sentencing Project, a national prison reform and research group, reveals a 21.6 percent drop in the number of blacks incarcerated nationally in state prisons for a drug offense during 1999-2005.

However, this sharp decline has not occurred in Illinois.

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority reports that in 1995, 24 percent of state prisoners were white, 66 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic. Ten years later, 28 percent were white, 60 percent black, and 11 percent Hispanic.

“Illinois is behind the curve,” said Pam Rodriguez, executive vice president of TASC

Drug Use among Racial Groups Is Proportionate; Incarceration Is Not
Although rates of drug use among racial and ethnic groups are similar, African Americans are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated more frequently than whites.

In 2005, African-Americans were 9.1 times more likely to be incarcerated in prison or jail in Illinois than whites, ranking 14th worst in the nation, and well above the national average of 5.6 times more likely.

From 1990 to 2000, the number of African-Americans admitted to prison in Illinois for drug offenses grew six-fold from 1,421 to 9,088. In contrast, the number of whites admitted to prison for drug offenses remained relatively stable.

What explains the racial disparity in Illinois?
To find the answer, TASC and its Center for Health and Justice worked last year with elected officials and community leaders to pass a law—Senate Bill 2476—to establish a Disproportionate Justice Impact Commission.

The new law—sponsored by State Senator Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago) and co-sponsored by State Representative Art Turner (D-Chicago)—requires research and analysis of the impact of current Illinois drug laws on different racial and ethnic groups.

“No legislature sets out to make a law that disproportionately imprisons a particular racial community, but I believe our laws here in Illinois do just that,” said Hunter.

“We now have the opportunity to render an informed judgment on Illinois drug laws based on an empirical data analysis and not just intuition,” said Rodriguez.

Housed at the Center for Health and Justice at TASC and the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the commission will include policymakers, members of the criminal justice system, social service agencies, and representatives from minority communities.

By December 2009, the Commission will present its findings and policy recommendations to the legislature. Then the real work begins.

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