Glaring Racial Disparities Persist in NYC Jails: Study

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Rikers Island jail complex in NYC. Photo by petershagen via Flickr

Although they comprise just 52 percent of New York City’s population, Black and Latinx people make up 90 percent of jail admissions, says a new report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The recent report, The Cumulative Risk of Jail Incarceration, charges the disparity is further proof of the inequalities endemic to America’s criminal justice system.

“Even though New York City now has one of the lowest jail incarceration rates in the nation, the jail system has a huge footprint on Black and Latinx communities,” said Bruce Western, CoDirector of the Columbia Justice Lab and Bryce Professor of Sociology and Social Justice at Columbia Universityand one of the authors of the report.

“The fact that poverty and race go hand-in-hand with jail incarceration rates underscores the need to replace the mass incarceration system with community solutions to public safety that advance fairness and economic well-being.”

The analysis, based on data collected on jail admissions and discharges in New York City from 2008 to 2017, found that more than 25 percent of Black men and 16 percent of Latino men are incarcerated in jails before the age of 38.

Only three percent of white men were jailed before the same age. Black men are also eight to 20 times more at risk of jail incarceration than white men.

Jails are often used as the form of punishment for low-level or non-violent offenses or people awaiting trial.

In fact, only 15 percent of jail admissions are due to violent felonies, said the report. Some 56 percent of admissions were related to misdemeanor offenses, parole violations or outstanding warrants.

Jail time is also usually short, the authors citing a median stay in jail at just 11 days. Albeit a shorter time than an offender would likely spend in prison, any time spent in jail can have a negative impact on their mental health, sometimes affecting a person’s job, their family or housing.

“Incarceration is brief, but jail time is disruptive, being associated with reduced employment, increased risk of criminal conviction, and rearrest,” said the authors.

The authors also noted a link between poverty and incarceration, finding that those who were impoverished were 40 to 50 percent more at risk to be incarcerated into a jail than those who weren’t.

Many different factors are responsible for the statistic. For example, someone who is wealthier might be able to hire better lawyers, attend costly rehabilitation programs or afford expensive treatments.

The authors also explain the effect of “broken-windows policing” or the idea that visible signs of disorder – like broken windows, vandalism or loitering – attracts more crime or criminal behavior.

“Jail incarceration under mass criminalization is a by-product of widespread arrests for drug and public-order offenses concentrated in low- income communities of color,” said the authors.

“Mass criminalization encompasses broken-windows policing and the ‘managerial justice’ of the misdemeanor courts that reserves wide discretion for police, prosecutors, and judges.”

According to the report, unless addressed, the disparity will continue to address the same disadvantaged groups, even making them more at risk to be re-incarcerated.

“Poor city residents with overlapping and chronic problems with health and housing have been called ‘frequent flyers’ by criminal justice officials because of their high rate of repeated incarceration,” said the authors.

Much like the disparity among a first time jail offense, this “repeated incarceration” is more likely to occur among Black and Latino men, have little presence with white men and happen only scarcely amongst women.

Included in the report is the story of Kalief Browder, a man who committed suicide before reaching his trial, after three years and 17 months in solitary confinement.

Rikers Island, the jail where Browder resided in, was widely criticized and accused of frequently using solitary confinement and brutality against inmates. The jail is expected to be shut down completely by 2026, recently delayed till 2027.

Although an extreme example, the mistreatment of inmates in Rikers Island is likely to be an experience that jail incarcerees experience across the nation. This perpetuates the question of whether or not incarceration is the most proactive form of punishment for low level and non-violent crimes.

And while New York City has decreased its prison population by at least 47 percent since 1999, the disparity persists, both among race and socioeconomic class.

In addition to Western, other authors of the report were Jaclyn Davis from the Columbia University Department of Political Science; Flavien Ganter from the Columbia University Department of Sociology; and Natalie Smith from Yale Law School .

Access the full report here.

Read more: Jail Incarceration Linked to Hike in Premature Deaths: Report

Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

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