Racial disparities among state prison inmates in Minnesota and around the country are becoming much less pronounced, but the figures show that African Americans are still incarcerated at much higher rates than whites. This was just one of the conclusions found in a report on prison demographics released on Dec. 3 by the Council on Criminal Justice. The nonpartisan organization also noticed a narrower disparity between the number of black and white individuals on parole or probation.

The mass incarceration of African Americans peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s due to the emergence of crack cocaine as a major law enforcement challenge. By the year 2000, a black American was 15 times more likely than a white American to be sent to prison for possessing or distributing illegal drugs. In 2016, an African American was five times more likely to be incarcerated on narcotics charges. The overall ratio of black to white inmates fell from 9-1 to 6-1 between 2000 and 2016 according to the COCJ report.

The researchers point out in the report that this decrease probably has very little to do with reforms to police procedures or changes in prosecutorial priorities. They say that the main driving force behind the narrowing racial disparities is the shift in the illegal drug marketplace from marijuana and cocaine to methamphetamine and opioids. The researchers mention that the drugs police are most concerned with today are often used or distributed by white Americans.

When their clients are facing incarceration for nonviolent behavior that would not lead to criminal charges in many states, experienced criminal defense attorneys may encourage prosecutors to consider sanctions that are designed to rehabilitate instead of punish. Attorneys might also raise mitigating factors during plea negotiations such as a full-time job, a supportive family, sincere regret and previous good conduct.