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Prison Racial Disparities Rose During Pandemic, Study Says

COVID-19 helped increase racial disparities in the U.S. prison system, says a paper published in Nature.

During the first year of the coronavirus disease pandemic, the number of prisoners nationwide dropped by at least 17%, the largest, fastest reduction in prison population in U.S. history.

White inmates benefited disproportionately from the decrease in the prison population, and the fraction of incarcerated Black and Latino people sharply increased, the paper says.

The pattern of increased racial disparity exists across prison systems in nearly every state and reverses a decade-long trend before 2020 and the onset of COVID-19, when the proportion of incarcerated whites was increasing amid declining numbers of incarcerated Blacks.

"We find that racial inequities in average sentence length are a major contributor," the paper says. The authors say their study "reveals how disruptions caused by COVID-19 exacerbated racial inequalities in the criminal legal system, and highlights key forces that sustain mass incarceration."

Black and Latino people are more likely to be stopped by police, held in jail pre-trial, charged with more serious crimes and sentenced more harshly than white people. These practices have made Black men six times as likely and Latino men 2.5 times as likely to be incarcerated as white men.

"Across nearly every state and federal prison system, we observe a convergent pattern: a substantial decrease in the overall number of people incarcerated (by approximately 200,000), but a meaningful increase in the proportion of incarcerated Black, Latino and other non-white people," says the study. "We conclude that sentencing patterns are a central mechanism driving the racial disparity."

The study's 12 authors are affiliated with Northeastern University, Harvard University, Yale University, the Santa Fe Institute, the Vermont Complex Systems Center and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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