When looking at jails and prisons across the country, the faces of people of color tend to appear more frequently behind bars.
The incarceration rates for African Americans especially tell a story about the justice system in the U.S. and in the Historic Triangle.
In 2018 the incarceration rate for African Americans across the country was nearly twice that of their white counterparts, according to the Pew Research Center. Black Americans represented 33 percent of the sentenced prison population that year, despite making up only 12 percent of the population.
But in the Historic Triangle, the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail is showing different numbers from the rest of the state. VPRJ includes inmates from James City County, York County, Williamsburg and Poquoson.
Sara Mahayni, the jail’s spokeswoman sent the following data to WYDaily:
“This data was derived and complied from the Virginia Compensation Board,” she wrote in an email.
Based on the 2017-2019 data, white men was 2.8 times the number of white women incarcerated and the number of Black men incarcerated was 3.6 times the number of Black women.
White men was the jail population’s largest majority.
- In 2017, Black men made up 31 percent of the jail population compared to their white male counterparts at 41.6 percent.
- In 2018, 30.6 percent of Black men and 45 percent of white men made up the jail’s population.
- In 2019, Black men accounted for 32 percent of the entire jail’s population while white men made up 43 percent.
So in 2017-2019, Black men made up approximately 31.2 percent of the jail’s population compared to their white male counterparts at approximately 43.2 percent.
The average daily population of the jail averaged 471 inmates with 484 in 2017, 498 in 2018 and 431 in 2019.
In 2017-2019, more inmates were considered pretrial status than sentenced with pending offense(s), sentenced or sent to ICE.
The data does not show the number of inmates broken down by gender, race or ethnicity.
Nate Green, commonwealth’s attorney for Williamsburg-James City County, said incarceration rates of African Americans in Williamsburg and James City County tend to show a 20 percent decrease as compared to the rest of the state, whereas white inmates show a 20 percent increase when compared to state numbers.
“I don’t know how we got to those numbers,” Green said. “I think there’s a lot that goes into these numbers and I don’t think there’s a simple answer that explains why they’re so different [from the rest of the state].”
But Virginia’s incarceration rates do continue to show a significant difference between incarceration rates of African Americans and white inmates.
Blacks comprised 43 percent of the population in jails in 2015 despite only comprising 20 percent of the state population, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Their white counterparts only accounted for 43 percent of jail populations, despite making up 64 percent of the state’s total population.
There are a number of reasons for this discrepancy, said Mateo Gasparotto, investigator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
“There are a lot of pathways to incarceration,” Gasparotto said. “Many begin with traffic stops or there are places…where you have these gang units that go into communities and really enforce and police aggressively in communities of color.”
Gasparotto said analyzing incarceration rates in Virginia can be difficult because jurisdictions don’t keep particularly good data when it comes to arrest rates. However, he said looking at the justice system can help paint a picture of why African Americans are being incarcerated at higher rates.
One reason he said could be that African Americans lack access to pretrial services where there could be a lot of pressure to participate in plea bargaining, even if they know they haven’t committed a crime. Many find themselves in front of a judge with a public defender, who, “despite their best efforts,” don’t necessarily have the necessary resources.
Gasparotto said looking at incarceration data also means taking a look at how arrests are occurring in the first place. Many people of color are getting charged with crimes at a higher rate because minority communities are looked at with greater observation.
“I think it’s a false equivalence,” he said. “Basically what you’re seeing is the arrests and police interactions are occurring because these communities are under higher scrutiny. While people consume and carry and possess drugs at the same rate as any other group of people, but these communities of color are under a higher degree of scrutiny.”
Gasparotto said fixing the issue of disproportionate rates can be done by looking at sentencing laws and continuing the current conversation around police accountability and community policing.
There’s no telling how long it will take to address issues in the criminal justice system.
“I think to be perfectly honest, it’s a little too soon to tell if this is moving toward [change],” he said. “I think only time will tell.”
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