Blacks, Latinos face heftier prison time

Mug photos of individuals booked in Pima County from February to September of 2017 demonstrates a racial makeup that is heavily Latino and Black. (Photo Courtesy by the Pima County Sheriff’s Department)

Nationwide, for every one white person imprisoned, roughly five black people are, according to the Sentencing Project.

In Arizona, those ratios are similar for African Americans, with Hispanics being imprisoned roughly twice as much as whites.

Yet, the U.S. Census Bureau’s data show that black people only take up about 5 percent of the total population of the state and Hispanic or Latino people make up about 31 percent.

In a report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “Black and Latino offenders sentenced in state and federal courts face significantly greater odds of incarceration than similarly situated white offenders.” Additionally, in some jurisdictions, they might “receive longer sentences than their white counterparts.”

Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst of the Sentencing Project, said – in accordance with data for Arizona – the white imprisonment rate per 100,000 people in Arizona, 444 will be imprisoned. The black imprisonment rate is 2,126 and the Hispanic imprisonment rate is 842.

“There are such disproportionate numbers in prison compared to our state population,” said Donna Leone Hamm, the director of Middle Ground Prison Reform in Tempe, Ariz.

According to Hamm, there are mostly white police officers who arrest, who then send cases to mostly white prosecutors which are then sent to white judges who sentence people in concert with the white prosecutors for any plea bargain. She adds that juries are mostly white even in states where there is a higher population of blacks.

While 22 percent of the state population are women of color, only 9 percent of state court judges are women of color, according to data by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. Furthermore, 23 percent of state court judges are men of color, whereas for white men the percentage is much larger at 46 percent.

“The system from the opening to the end is not representative of the African American population and the minority population,” she said.

In the U.S., roughly four in ten individuals are people of color, but they make up fewer than two in ten judges, according to a report by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. In addition, “State courts handle more than 90 percent of the judicial business in America,” the report states.

Hamm was previously a lower court judge in Coconino and Maricopa counties. She stated that if there is a neatly dressed person standing before you and someone standing in his t-shirt and scruffy jeans, there is a subjective quality to what happens to the individual. “As a judge, you’re supposed to set that aside, but do they? Can they?” Hamm said.

The consequences of not doing so become very important at the felony level because you’re sentencing someone to the potential of being in prison for decades. There is subjectivity to it that comes into play and it’s something that needs to be guarded against, Hamm adds.

Rebecca Fealk, a program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee Arizona office, wrote a report with Caroline Isaacs regarding drug sentencing in Arizona. Fealk has a masters in public administration which she received through the University of Arizona.

The information from the report was pulled from court cases taken from Maricopa County, Pima County, and Yavapai county where the “person was charged with a drug crime and sentenced to the Department of Corrections for at least one drug crime.”

The report found a trend that showed people of color who were charged and sent to prison, stayed in prison for a longer amount of time than people who are white, according to Fealk.

Graphic by Deborah Lee (Source: “Drug Sentencing in Arizona: A Prescription for Failure,” American Friends Service Committee Arizona Office.)

The average prison sentence in months for a marijuana sales charge with no prior convictions for a black person was 43 months, according to the report. Whereas, whites only had an average sentence of 27.75 months. In general, blacks are “sentenced to 25% longer for drug crimes in Arizona,” the report states.

The disparity in sentence duration is a lot closer for methamphetamine possessions charges with prior convictions – blacks had an average prison sentence of 33.29 months, while whites had 32.55 months. But despite the smaller gap, it continues to portray the existing disparity among those who are black and those who are white.

Why might this be the case?

There is no concrete answer to this question, but according to Hamm, the mostly white tunnel that works the chains through the justice system plays a role in this racial and ethnic disparity in sentencing. “If there was more diversity in the official positions, that would have a significant impact,” she said.

For Fealk, the deep history of systemic racism toward people of color, especially African Americans, fuels this disparity. “Our drug crime came out of racism,” she said, “Marijuana was not illegal until the jazz scene started to use it, which was mainly black people.”

In Arizona, “You only need one gram of crack – which the minorities used – and it is equal to the penalty of 12 grams of powder cocaine – which is the Hollywood drug that rich white people used,” Fealk said.

Deborah Lee is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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