Kansas sending Black residents to prison at a rate 6 times higher than white people

·3 min read

A disturbing new report reveals that Black residents in Kansas were six times more likely to be in prison than white residents. And that should be an embarrassment for everyone in the state.

A total of 1,661 out of every 100,000 Black residents are behind prison bars in the Sunflower State — or 1 in 60. The incarceration rate for white Kansans wasn’t even close — 265 per 100,000 residents, or about 1 in 377.

Those were among the findings reported in “Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons,” which examined incarceration rates for white, African American and Latino individuals across the country. The report was produced by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that promotes alternatives to lengthy mass incarceration of prisoners.

An overhaul of the criminal justice system in Kansas isn’t likely anytime soon, social justice advocates say. But elected officials have a duty to change the status quo. State legislators must take a nonpartisan approach to dismantling a system that unfairly and disproportionately affects minority residents.

Kansas’ Black incarceration rate ranked 11th in the nation — a dubious standing — and its rate of locking up Black residents was higher than the national average, according to the report. Researchers analyzed information from the U.S. Census Bureau and statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Black people comprised a little over 6% of the state’s general population of 2.9 million people in 2019, the year used in the study. But about 27% of Kansas’ prison inmates were black.

Even Missouri, hardly a beacon of racial understanding or justice, doesn’t come close to Kansas. The incarceration rate for Black Missourians was 1,297 per 100,000 Black residents (1 in 77) , a rate that ranked 31st nationally, according to the report.

But the incarceration rate for white people in Missouri was 336 per 100,000 residents, approaching 1 in 300. About 35% of Missouri’s prison inmates in 2019 were Black, although Black Missourians made up just 11% of the general population of 6.1 million people.

That suggests the Show-Me State has a racial disparity issue it needs to address as well.

Going to prison is a life-altering event that creates obstacles to building stable lives, advocates with the Sentencing Project say. Stable employment and safe housing are hard to come by for ex-convicts. Earning potential is squandered behind bars. Children of incarcerated people suffer undue economic harm for generations as a result.

Kansas officials must take steps to reduce the state’s minority prison population. For starters, minor infractions that send substance abusers and others to prison must be decriminalized.

The state must also prioritize reinvestment in education, community services, social support, employment and affordable housing, said Sharon Brett, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas.

The criminal justice system must examine how charging decisions are made by prosecutors and at racial disparities in plea deals. Changes to how courts impose bail, set probation or parole conditions, or rule on revocation petitions may also dramatically reduce racial disparities in the prison population.

Sadly, there is no easy fix, one lever that automatically would suddenly shut off or reduce racial disparities in the prison population. As the ACLU’s Brett said, systemic, structural inequality in the criminal legal system runs deep — changes must recognize that reality, and attack the problem from all sides.

Are Kansas officials willing to do the work required to reduce the state’s Black and minority prison population? At a time when so many sins of the past that oppressed people are being revealed — as are their present-day incarnations — can they afford not to?

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