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Race and Imprisonment in Texas: The Disparate Incarceration of Latinos and African Americans in the Lone Star State

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A newly-released study from the Justice Policy Institute called “Race and Imprisonment in Texas” finds, in part, that finds that African-Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites in Texas and that Latinos are incarcerated nearly twice as much as whites.” We speak with the author of the report. [includes rush transcript]

The Justice Policy Institute is releasing a report today called “Race and Imprisonment in Texas; The disparate incarceration of Latinos and African Americans in the Lone Star State.”

The report finds that African-Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites in Texas and that Latinos are incarcerated nearly twice as much as whites. The study also estimates that lost economic productivity due to the imprisonment of African-Americans in Texas is more than $1 billion dollars.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined by — in Washington by the author of the report, Jason Ziedenberg. He is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JASON ZIEDENBERG: Good morning. How you are?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, could you tell us a little bit about the major findings of your new report?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: Yeah. In the major findings, as this basically localizes what we know to be true in the rest of the country, that African Americans, Latinos and other non-white citizens bear the brunt of our choice to expand the use of prison in this country. The report shows that while Latinos and African Americans make up about four out of ten Texans, they represent more than seven out of ten Texans in prison. This is of interest to us in the United States, because one out of ten people locked up in the entire country are locked up in Texas. The report also shows that most of the growth in the drug prisoner population in the state was made up by incarcerating African American people, and that over the time that the Texas drug incarcerated population grew 12-fold, eight out of ten new drug prisoners were African American. So, these findings are consistent with what we see in the rest of the country. This is just the picture in Texas where it’s been a very controversial prison system, because it’s so large and because there has been questions about the fairness in the use of justice policies in that state.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Astoundingly, as I saw the summary of the report, you indicate that there was a 360% increase in the number of African Americans sent to jail for drug offenses, while there was a 9% decrease in the number of whites sent to jail for drug offenses. Any idea why that enormous disparity?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: I think basically what it is it’s an enormous disparity. I think that we have spent so much resources in this country and in Texas on ways to detain, incarcerate and put people behind bars for drug offenses that you see just these rapid and large numbers, as it affects the communities that are most impacted by these policies, and it’s a major investment in resources to arrest, detain and incarcerate that many people. So, it might mean that resources are not spent the same way in policing or incarcerating others.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the comparison to the efforts to educate the various populations? You also raise that in your report.

JASON ZIEDENBERG: Yeah. The report shows that there is more African American men of all ages in the prison and jail system in Texas than there are African American men of all ages in the higher education system in Texas. That’s from a piece that we did in the year 2000. I think much more importantly than that was the finding from Princeton University which showed that nationwide, African American men in their 30s were more likely to have a prison record than they were to have a bachelor’s degree. That’s based on the work of a Princeton academic. And this is based on our policy choices. We have chosen to build more prisons in this country. W we have chosen to elect officials that have decided that’s the way our financial resources are going to be spent, and we have got to hold them accountable to what we want to be better choices about how our resources should be spent, and how we want to treat people that end up in our systems.

AMY GOODMAN: What about young people in the prisons of Texas?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: I think what you find in Texas was what you would find in the rest of the country, that the majority of people in prison in the state are younger people in their 20s and 30s to mid-30s. I think what you find — what would you find in the rest of the country is that largest impact of the growing use of prisons has been under for young African American men. There was a study done in the late 1990s that showed something like one in four young African American men in Texas were under some form of criminal justice control. That’s generally consistent with what we have seen in the rest of the country, except in the rest of the country, policies are being done to possibly amend what’s going on in our prison system. You’re seeing sentencing changes. You’re seeing spending on drug treatment instead of incarceration in some states. And we have to be hopeful that Texas will make those choices, too.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the 15 to 29-year-olds, and what about them being put in jail as opposed to drug treatment, and what kind of drug treatment is available?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: I think if you had talked to people in Texas, you would hear the same thing that you hear in the rest of the country: There are some drug treatment resources available, but it’s not the quality that you need to keep people from ending up in the criminal justice system. One of the most interesting debates going on in Texas right now is about its probation system. There’s about 240,000 people on probation in the state, and 53,000 people leave probation every year. Half of those end up back in prison. There’s debate now about whether they should expand more drug treatment options for those people, and for the cost of having 4,000 more drug treatment beds in the state, that costs about 20 days to run the entire Texas prison system. So, there’s choices that can be made to change these statistics. We just have to make them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, your organization has been putting these reports out now for the better part of a decade, that I know of, at least. Are you seeing any change in — any substantive change in some of these mandatory sentencing laws around the country, either in Texas or nationwide?

JASON ZIEDENBERG: Yeah. We are. I think it’s a bad news/good news story. The bad news is the state budget crisis of the early part of this decade caused a lot of states to really rethink how much they were spending on prison and, to some degree, compelled them to do some level of sentencing reform. That said, we haven’t built up either the drug treatment or the mental health treatment or the education infrastructure, the vocational infrastructure in this country to be able to deal with people coming back from prison. There’s about 600,000 people that come back from prison every year to our communities. And we really need to invest more than that. In Texas, I think what’s really interesting is that while the legislative budget board has said that something like five more prisons may have to be built in the next six years, they are having a real substantive policy debate about what to do with their probation system. And we’re hopeful that by giving people a glimpse of what’s happened in the past, they might choose a different future.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jason Ziedenberg, I want to thank you very much for being with us, of the Justice Policy Institute. Just come out with a new report, “Race and Imprisonment in Texas: The Disparate Incarceration of Latinos and African Americans in the Lone Star State.” African Americans and Latinos, four out of ten Texans, seven out of ten prisoners. Thank you for being with us.

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