*USA TODAY reports of study that found that white people were largely kept out of prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic, while Blacks and Latinos were left inside.
According to the study by multiple interdisciplinary researchers from U.S. universities, and published Wednesday in the journal Nature, historic reductions in U.S. prison populations during the pandemic’s first year disproportionately benefitted white people, and the fraction of incarcerated Black and Latino people “sharply increased” in nearly every state.
The effect was particularly dramatic for Black people, as it reversed a decade-long trend of declining proportions of incarcerated Black people, according to the study.
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“What this study really shows is that sentencing is the key mechanism driving the alarming racial inequities that we have in the U.S. criminal justice system,” said the study’s co-author Elizabeth Hinton, a law professor at Yale Law School.
The number of incarcerated people as a whole decreased by at least 17% from March 2020 to July 2021, amounting to the largest and fastest reduction in the prison population in American history, the researchers wrote. Releases increased as officials tried to lower the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks inside. Many potentially vulnerable inmates were set free or sent to home confinement state.
The researchers created a dataset that includes state-level information on police encounters, court proceedings and incarcerated populations derived from departments of corrections and public information requests from all 50 states, D.C. and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The numbers showed that in the first nine months of the pandemic, the proportion of Black inmates increased by about 1% after declining from about 42% to 39% in the seven years before the pandemic.
“This increase in racial disparity occurred nationally and in nearly every state, transcending vast differences in approach to crime and incarceration,” the researchers wrote. Many states also saw increases in the proportion of Latino inmates over that time, Hinton said.
Hinton also pointed out that Black people, in particular, “receive harsher sentences, and those sentences often carry enhancements and additional penalties that then meant people were serving time for longer and also ineligible in those states that offered release.”
By early 2021, trends began to revert to pre-pandemic levels, the researchers found. The reduction in prison admissions stopped and, in most states, the total incarcerated population began to increase once again.
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