Study examines racial disparities in criminal justice system

Many people in West Virginia have raised concerns about serious racial disparities in incarceration and sentencing that have significantly affected black communities across the country. According to one study by the Council on Criminal Justice, some types of racial gaps are decreasing in the criminal justice system while others remain significant, and still more seem to be increasing. The council releasing the report is a nonpartisan association that includes government officials from both major parties as well as justice reform advocates and police agency representatives.

According to the study, state prisons and local jails showed a decreased disparity in the incarceration of black and white defendants as did the parole and probation system. The most significant decline in the racial gap came in the area of drug offenses, which have been a primary target of criminal justice reform efforts, especially as many people have served years in prison for nonviolent crimes. Marijuana legalization and the opioid crisis have played a role in changing drug laws. In 2000, black people were 15 times more likely than white people to be incarcerated for drug offenses, a multiplier that dropped to five times by 2016. While noting that these were positive results, observers also said that they continue to show a concerning racial gap in outcomes.

In addition, sentences that black defendants received continue to grow in severity, researchers said, outstripping the sentences received by white defendants. Black people are also still more likely to be subjected to arrests. Some experts attribute this ongoing gap to policing policies that continue to target neighborhoods that are home to more people of color.

A criminal conviction can have serious long-term consequences, including prison time, hefty fines and a felony criminal record. People accused of criminal charges may contact a defense attorney to seek to prevent a conviction.

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