The state of Minnesota exposes one troubling reason America locks up so many black people

Georgia prison inmatesScreenshot via Georgia Department of CorrectionsPrison inmates wait as guards search the prison and their cells for contraband during a shakedown at Wilcox State Prison in Abbeville, Ga.

America has banished a disproportionate number of its black citizens to the “grey wasteland” of incarceration, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in The Atlantic’s devastating new cover story.

In “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Coates notes that in 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was behind bars. That was 10 times the rate for white males in the same age group.

A decade later, Coates writes, one-third of black male high school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were incarcerated. Only 13% of white dropouts in that age group were behind bars.

The incarceration and poverty rates in one state — Minnesota — could help explain why so many African-American men end up in prison or jail. Though Minnesota has one of America’s lowest incarceration rates due to “relatively sane justice policies,” it also has one of the “worst black-white incarceration ratios in the country,” Coates wrote, citing a 2009 paper from University of Minnesota Law School.

Studies from the 1980s and 1990s showed that the black per-capita incarceration rates in Minnesota were about 20 times higher than the rates for whites, making the ratio the most unequal in the nation, Richard Frase wrote in the paper, called “What Explains Persistent Racial Disproportionality in Minnesota’s Jail and Prison Populations?”

Prison MinnesotaWikipediaMinnesota Correctional Facility — St. Cloud

Minnesota does a bit better now, but its ratio of black-to-white incarceration rates is still in the top quartile, according to Frase.

It turns out that something else distinguishes Minnesota from other states in the US: The poverty rate for blacks in that state is much higher than it is in the US as a whole. In 2000, the black family poverty rate was six times higher than the white family poverty rate in Minnesota, while it was 3.4 times higher in the US as a whole.

Poverty and incarceration perpetuate each other, Frase writes:

Poverty and lack of opportunity are associated with higher crime rates; crime leads to arrest, a criminal record, and usually a jail or prison sentence; past crimes lengthen those sentences; offenders released from prison or jail confront family and neighbourhood dysfunction, increased rates of unemployment, and other crime-producing disadvantages; this makes them likelier to commit new crimes, and the cycle repeats itself.

Coates says Minnesota provides a bigger lesson.

“The lesson of Minnesota is that the chasm in incarceration rates is deeply tied to the socioeconomic chasm between black and white America,” he writes.

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