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Black Nebraskans incarcerated at disproportionate rate, new report shows
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Black Nebraskans incarcerated at disproportionate rate, new report shows

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Black residents in Nebraska are incarcerated at a rate of nearly nine times that of white people in the state, according to new research from a national research and advocacy organization focused on prison reform. 

One of every 58 Black residents in the state are in prison, according to the report authored by research analysts with The Sentencing Project. That figure compares to one in every 513 white residents, according to the report titled "The Color of Justice."

State Sen. Terrell McKinney

Terrell McKinney

The report, which outlines causes and potential remedies to the racial disparities seen in prison populations nationwide, paints a particularly alarming portrait of Nebraska's prison system. 

"Honestly, I wasn't surprised," Sen. Terrell McKinney, who represents north Omaha, told the Journal Star on Friday. "Even prior to getting into office, pretty much everyone has known that there's been disparities. 

"I've went through a lot of our correctional facilities. The disparities are clear as day."

Though Black people make up about 5% of Nebraska's total population, they account for more than a quarter of the state's prison population, according to the report. 

And Nebraska's Black incarceration rate is the 10th-highest in the country, outpacing the national average. One of every 81 Black residents nationwide is in prison, according to the report. For white residents, that figure is one in every 383.

State of Nebraska increases pay for critical workers, including prison employees

McKinney, elected in 2020 as the 14th Black senator to serve in Nebraska's Legislature, said the report helped quantitate the realities he has witnessed when touring Nebraska Department of Correctional Services facilities. 

But the freshman senator is tired of reading in-depth analyses of the racial disparities that exist in Nebraska, he said. Instead he'd like to read bills introduced that would address them. 

"We keep doing reports, and nothing ever changes," McKinney said. "It's now time for us to put some policies on the table that would change that dynamic on the front and the back end." 

The Sentencing Project identified three recurrent causes for the nationwide disparities, pointing to an enduring legacy of racial subordination, biased policies and practices in policing and prosecution, and historic structural disadvantages that sustain disparities.

McKinney said he hoped the state task force examining prison reform with help from the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute would provide policy-change proposals that might address racial disparities. But the District 11 senator said he wasn't sure yet what those proposals might look like. 

Still, he repeated the need for reform to come on both ends — addressing racial biases in policing and prosecution practices while investing in impoverished communities. 

"I think you need both," McKinney said. "We could pass all the policy changes we want. But if we're sending individuals back into high-poverty communities, we're probably gonna get the same results. 

"You can't pass policy changes and not do anything to decrease poverty and address mental health and those things. I honestly think you need both to ever make this work in any type of way." 

One practice in particular the Sentencing Project noted relates to pretrial detainment, which is more likely to be imposed on Black defendants because of income inequalities.

Pretrial detention contributes to racial disparities in prisons because those who remain in jail before trial as they navigate the legal process are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to longer prison terms, according to the report.

NE state imprisonment vs. population

Judges regularly consider employment or school enrollment status when sentencing those convicted of crimes, a factor that would work against someone who couldn't afford to post bail.

Pretrial detention has become a focal point for the ACLU of Nebraska, which in June vowed to monitor courtrooms across the state over the next two years to ensure judges consider defendants' ability to pay cash bail, fines or fees — factors required to be evaluated under state law. 

Nebraska prison employee accused of unauthorized communication with an inmate

The organization launched the court watching program in Lancaster County, where about 4% of residents are Black. In late May, as the ACLU of Nebraska prepared to announce its initiative, roughly 34% of people in the county's pretrial jail population were Black, according to the organization. 

Rose Godinez, the legal and policy counsel for the organization, said observers have watched hundreds of hours of court proceedings in what she called an effort to hold prosecutors and judges accountable for "how the courts are treating our Nebraskans who are financially struggling." 

Rose Godinez appointed to commission on human rights

Godinez

"There are alternatives," Godinez said. "I think that's what's important for Nebraskans to know. ... If you're struggling to pay a fee or bail, they can consider payment plans. They can consider community service. Or a complete discharge of fines. Those options are there."

So far, Godinez said, observers with the ACLU have encountered "a mixed bag" on whether courts in Lancaster County are duly considering the financial means of pre-trial defendants when setting bail. County Attorney Pat Condon did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Journal Star.  

In its report last week, The Sentencing Project called on states to scale back the use of prison for low-level drug offenses and instead redirect resources to drug use prevention programming. In Nebraska, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana has been decriminalized, though possessing mere grams of other narcotics can still net felony charges.

Godinez said further decriminalizing narcotic possession in the state remains a pillar of the ACLU of Nebraska's platform.

"We should be prioritizing people, not prisons," she said. "Nebraskans know that we are wasting way too much money already in locking up people who need mental health support or drug addiction services, and that's the way we can support community safety and achieve better outcomes."

And the measure would help address the racial disparities rampant in Nebraska's prisons, according to the ACLU. From 2010 to 2018, Black people were three times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in the state, even though Black and white people use the drug at similar rates, according to the organization's 2020 report.

Godinez pointed to the Legislature as the body best suited to address the disparities. The Sentencing Project's report did, too, recommending states eliminate mandatory minimums for certain convictions and pursue "racial impact legislation," which would prompt legislative bodies to fully examine how changes in criminal codes might impact or exacerbate disparities.

Racial impact statements forecast the effect policy changes will have on people of different races and ethnicities, according to the report.

Iowa was the first state to introduce racial impact legislation, passing it into law in 2009.

In 2007, Black residents in Iowa were 13.6 times more likely to be imprisoned than white residents, according to the report. Now, that ratio is 9-to-1.

Godinez said a timeline surrounding when Nebraska lawmakers might take further action to address prison population disparities remains "the million-dollar question."

For McKinney, the uncertainty seems to center not around when legislation will be introduced, but how far it might go to address structural issues — and how many senators might support it.

"To my colleagues and the governor: Don't just say you're an ally and you care about what's going on in my community or you care about the overcrowding crisis and the staffing crisis," he said. "Care in your vote. Use your vote to really affect change, because that's what needs to happen."