02.05.21

Black History Month: 4 Disparities in Prison, Prescriptions, Criminal Justice, and Policing

black history month - 4 disparities in prisons, prescriptions, criminal justice, and policing

Black History Month is a time to celebrate the contributions that African Americans have made to our country. It’s also a time to reflect on our continued struggle for racial justice.

Throughout the month, the Center for Advancing Opportunity is highlighting the work of our three centers with a focus on data points that encapsulate the African American experience. This week the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University shares their latest research, highlighting four critical racial disparities in our society – in prison population health, in the under prescribing of pain medication to minorities, in Houston’s criminal justice system, and in national policing practices.

1. There’s Health Inequity in Our Prison Population

The COVID-19 pandemic is devastating the Black community at alarming rates. Across the country, majority Black counties are reporting three times the rate of infections and almost six times the rate of deaths as majority-white counties.

Black people are more likely than any other racial group to have preexisting conditions, resulting from a historical legacy of socio-political inequities, routine disadvantages, and institutional racism.

Coupled with the over-representation of Black people in the criminal legal system and underrepresentation in access to quality healthcare, COVID-19 creates additional risks for Black people in prisons and jails, and the communities to which they return.

Each year, approximately 10 million people are processed in and out of local jails, where they spend an estimated 25 days until being released back to their communities. Characterized by close quarters, transient populations, the high prevalence of chronic illness and infectious diseases remains 4 to 17 times higher in correctional facilities, posing a significant public health risk during this pandemic.

Despite canceling visits, jails and prisons remain a hot spot for COVID-19 infections. There are 446 more positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in correctional facilities than in the general U.S. population.

Collaboration between public health institutions and the criminal legal system is particularly important in this moment. The response to COVID-19 must be centered on race and include input from Black professionals who have unique perspectives as system actors and members of a community impacted most severely by this pandemic. Policymakers can no longer turn a blind eye to the racial injustices embedded in both the criminal legal system and public health system.

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2. There’s Racial Disparity in Prescribing Rx Pain Meds

The racial disparity in the under-prescribing of Rx opioid medications in urban communities may cause minorities to access illicit preparations of these drugs, which are often laced with potent synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

Although the prevalence and availability of prescription (Rx) opioids have created increases in opioid overdoses in the U.S. across all races and ethnicities, research has suggested that the increasing threat of the opioid epidemic is worst in black and urban, minority communities, and may be attributed to several factors, including the under-prescribing of Rx opioids to minorities.

This can be due to several factors including the lack of accessibility to health insurance and/or cognitive biases of healthcare professionals that minorities have higher pain tolerances than Whites. As a result, healthcare professionals may limit pain management prescriptions for minorities.

This was once thought to shield these communities from the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic, however, several studies have suggested that this racial disparity in the under-prescribing of Rx opioid medications in urban communities may cause minorities to access illicit preparations of these drugs, which are often laced with potent synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

As a result, many urban communities have experienced a significant spike in the number of opioid overdoses, which may be linked to the availability of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl or carfentanil.

The response to the opioid epidemic has been divided by race and class and represents a systemic failure to ensure that minorities are a part of the conversation about solutions and future policy implications.

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3. There is Racial Disparity in the Third Largest Criminal Justice System in the Nation

Minorities are at a distinct disadvantage in Houston, Texas, the nation’s third largest pretrial population where Harris County has spent $7.2 million defending unconstitutional bail practices. Three out of four Harris County jail inmates have not been convicted of any crime.

There has been no shortage of discourse surrounding racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. In fact, the need to address these inequities has emerged as a central tenet of most viable criminal justice reform efforts.

However, missing from the ongoing dialogue concerning race, crime, and justice, are attempts to evolve from the mere documentation of disparity’s presence to action through empirically informed policy recommendations, program development and intervention designs.

Processing over 100,000 citizens each year, the Harris County jail has garnered national attention for its discriminatory bail practices, which have been found to criminalize poverty while indirectly impacting racial and ethnic minorities. People of color collectively represent 72% of those in jail prior to a determination of guilt in Harris County.

There is no better opportunity for bail and pretrial reform than now. The innumerable amount of causes in direct relation to pretrial disparities can be adequately addressed with concrete commitments from the criminal justice gatekeepers, service providers and the community.

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4. The U.S. Criminal Justice System Needs Transparency and Accountability

Rivaling the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s, 25 million Americans gathered in the streets, in all 50 states, to express their discontent with police practices in the weeks since the killing of George Floyd. Video has repeatedly shown that these lethal police tactics could be avoided.

Police reform, now more than ever, demands an evidence-based approach that must be identified and led by individuals who share lived-experiences with the historically disenfranchised. Meaningful police reform requires accountability and cultural sensitivity.

In addition, research has shown that just under one-third of American officers have four-year college degrees. Degreed officers have been shown to have a 40 percent reduction in uses of force while also possessing greater levels of creativity and problem solving. Police officers with college degrees have also been found to receive fewer complaints, ultimately improving the overall quality of the police-community experience.

Nothing will truly change until we recruit college-educated officers that don’t possess authoritarian personalities and who are free from implicit bias. We also need to ensure that police training is culturally relevant and responsive to the true needs of the community.

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