Black South Carolinians are over four times more likely to be imprisoned than white residents, researchers said in a recent analysis.
Advocates who authored the report about racial disparities among American inmates see promising signs from South Carolina’s prison system, while defense attorneys say lingering social issues in black communities and strict sentencing guidelines still need to be addressed.
South Carolina’s rate of incarceration for black people ranks the state among the lowest nationwide, according to “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons.” The analysis was done by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., research and advocacy group.
In New Jersey, the highest on the list, black people are 12 times more likely than whites to go to prison. The national average is 5.1, above South Carolina’s average of 4.3.
Still, the Palmetto State has the fourth-highest ratio of black prisoners to white inmates, the group’s report on 2014 data found.
The state’s efforts in recent years to drive down the total prison population through sentencing reforms has been of some benefit to African-Americans. In 2010, they made up 67 percent of inmates, said Ashley Nellis, a researcher who wrote the report and examined South Carolina data separately. This month, they make up 61 percent.
But Nellis said lawmakers and authorities must continue to look into why black residents more often wind up in prison.
“Disparities should be a principle concern for reformers and lawmakers in South Carolina concerned with criminal justice,” she said. “The good news is that South Carolina is one of the states that has consistently lowered its prison population ... without harms to public safety.”
South Carolina is one of 12 states in which more than half of the prison population is black, the report found. The state’s population in 2014 was 27.4 percent black, but the prison population was 64.7 percent black.
The study suggests several factors in the criminal-justice system that might explain why blacks are disproportionately represented in the prisons:
Police are more likely to stop and frisk blacks and to arrest them for drug offenses, especially for minor offenses.
Prosecutors are more likely to charge black offenders under state habitual offender laws.
Judges are more likely to give blacks longer sentences because they are perceived as threats to society who need to be locked away.
The report didn’t specify which states are more likely to treat blacks differently on a local level. A number of studies have been done on the extent of racial disparity in prison sentences, and conclusions vary. The most recent study on disparities cited in the report was done in 2008.
Members of local agencies who make up the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council have been studying whether there is racial disparity in the disproportionate number of blacks sent to the Charleston County jail, which could be an indication of trends in state prisons.
About three times as many blacks are housed in the jail as whites. But it’s not clear if that represents disparity, which was the theme of the study, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.
“Disparity happens when people are treated differently despite having similar circumstances,” Wilson said.
The Solicitor’s Office is using money from a MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge Grant to collect more data to see if blacks and whites who are arrested are treated differently when it comes to sentencing.
“Once we are able to conduct our own local analysis,” Wilson said, “we can look at the depth of any problems we see and find solutions to address them.”
Ninth Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington said he found the report “very troubling here in South Carolina and in all 50 states.” He said poverty and chronic mental health problems often play into disparities in the criminal justice system. Impoverished people often cannot get high-quality counseling and rehabilitation before sentencing, he said, affecting the prison terms they get.
Like Wilson, Pennington is hopeful that the MacArthur grant will help expose some of the problems in the Charleston area. He said the state must also revisit lengthy mandatory minimum sentences of 10 to 30 years on drug offenses “because they rob a sentencing judge of the discretion to draft an appropriate sentence for a specific offender based on the facts of that case.”
“There is much more work to do,” he said.
North Charleston NAACP leader Ed Bryant said it’s clear that black residents face disparities in their dealings with police and prosecutors. More than 60 percent of the motorists stopped by the North Charleston Police Department are black, while the city’s population is about 47 percent black, according to agency data.
The city recently called in a team from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to evaluate policies and make recommendations.
“Historically, this is a racist culture,” Bryant said. “You can profile which judges repeatedly sends blacks to jail. Judges know which policemen repeatedly bring in minority citizens for arrest. Prosecutors send blacks to trial, stack juries, lock up innocent persons without cause. ... Traffic tickets are big business, and the bulk of the tickets come from the minority communities.”
The Sentencing Project’s report also says structural disadvantages help explain why more blacks than whites end up in prison. Those include poverty, unemployment, poor housing, family problems, community violence and school dropout.
Black inmates are more likely to come from homes with little support, and that lack of family support can also lead to stricter sentences, according to Debra Gammons of the Charleston School of Law, where she is a visiting professor and acting director of diversity initiatives.
A judge is more likely to grant probation or a lesser sentence if the defendant has a strong family network for support. Otherwise, the defendant could be viewed as a greater danger to society and given a longer sentence.
“A judge wants to make sure that defendant has some family support,” Gammons said. “If nobody shows up for a defendant, that makes a difference to a judge.”
About 90 percent of criminal defendants plead guilty without a trial, she said. The judge always asks how far they went in school, and most defendants say they dropped out before graduation. Gammons said she has not observed a lack of education causing a judge to give a longer sentence, but lack of education is certainly a factor in defendants ending up in court.
“If you want to see change in crime levels and incarceration, then the change has to be in education,” she said. “If you don’t look at the homes and education, it’s going to continue to happen. That’s my frustration.”
The report suggests several changes that could reduce the disparity in blacks sent to prison.
Scale back the use of prison for low-level drug crimes and instead redirect resources to prevention and drug-intervention programming.
Evaluate the impact of mandatory minimum sentences, which don’t allow the judge to consider factors that might be relevant to a lesser sentence.
Evaluate habitual offender laws, which are more likely to be applied to blacks.
Institute training on implicit bias for those involved in the justice system.
Enact racial-impact legislation, which considers the racial outcome of new laws, similar to fiscal impact statements or environmental impact statements.
Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553. Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.