A report released last week by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office reveals that African Americans are jailed, disciplined and held for longer periods of time than inmates of other races.
The report measured many aspects of the inmate population at the county, counting intakes from the county's many police precincts.
Christine Kirk, a spokesperson for the office, said specific practices by law enforcement personnel and decisions made by those officers are directly reflected in the makeup of the county inmate population. While some of the data indicate disparate treatment for minorities, Kirk said the jail is largely fed by a fair system that has its share of flaws.
"The system itself has ways to deal with acts of racism," Kirk says.
Acts of bias or prejudice, however, are much harder to detect, but they are practices affecting a person's criminal history, place in society, education and ways police treated them, she said.
In Portland, African Americans are 3.4 times more likely to be stopped by police than Whites. Those numbers are reflected in arrests. African Americans make up a county population of only 5.7 percent, but make up 21.3 percent of jail bookings, down from 21.8 from last year.
Bookings only rose by a slight percent for Hispanics and Native Americans, the same groups with disproportionate bookings compared to the general population. Whites are 74.3 percent of the general population, yet 62.4 percent of bookings.
For all races, if you break a law, the report indicates your chance of being arrested and taken to jail is almost guaranteed. The vast majority of bookings – measured by citation or arrest – result in arrests.
But for Blacks and American Indians, your chances are a little bit better, as 87.5 percent of Blacks who are booked are arrested, 5.4 percent are cited and released, and 7.1 percent are bookings for people who have already been arrested and are serving out a sentence on the weekends.
"Racism is difficult to address and detect, but while it may be the underlying cause, the question is not why it exists – but how," said Clariner Boston, the executive director of Better People, an organization that helps people with criminal histories gain meaningful employment and rebuild their lives. "As long as people are different, their differences promote feelings of being uncomfortable. We as a society establish rules, policies and law usually as a result of our acceptable norms and mores. … We tend to want to punish those who do not fit into our scheme of things — we promote racist attitudes."
Because many minorities live in impoverished neighborhoods, police tend to focus there more heavily, Boston said, leading to more encounters and more arrests.
Average Length of Stay
The length of jail stays after arrest went up for everyone from 2006 to 2007 (Native American stays went down, but are based on merely 4 releases in 2006 and 8 releases in 2007).
African Americans stayed the longest – 30 days on average. Whites had the shortest stay with 24 days on average; Hispanics and Asians were about even with 26 days on average. But those are just the averages.
Perhaps the most telling measure of discrimination behind bars comes when you break down the types of crimes committed by different races.
Blacks spent the most time at county jail for felony person (62 days) and property crimes (39 days). In the area of felonies, no other race comes close to spending as much time as did African Americans (see sidebars for breakdowns). The only crime category African Americans served least time for is felony vehicle crimes (9.9 days; Whites served 10; Hispanics and Asians served 15). Felony drug crimes were relatively even across races, with African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics serving about two days longer than Whites and Asians.
Trying to determine the justness of a system by looking at average jail stays is difficult says Kirk. Because it's an average, exceptionally long sentences served by some inmates could skew a category.
Length of stay is also influenced by a judge's perception of an arrestee's danger or ability to return to court. It's also influenced by the ability to make bail – which some observers say is an expensive and out-of-reach avenue of release for many people.
In fact, bail is used in a very small percent of releases in the Multnomah County Jail.
"Many African Americans are considered to be a flight risk because they lack an ability to demonstrate stability – not owning property and/or not being employed," said Boston. "Many African Americans cannot meet bail and are, therefore, detained in jail, she said. "Research indicates that persons detained in jail are more apt to be found guilty of charges."
If you get arrested for a misdemeanor, your chances of disparate jail time are virtually non-existent – except if you are an African American committing a person crime.
The average stay for a misdemeanor crime for Blacks, Whites and Hispanics was 8.6 days; Asians were 9.4 and American Indians were 7.1. The longest stay for all races was the "other" category, which included mostly restraining order and contempt of court violations, according to the study.
Reason for Release
On average, being sentenced is the main reason a person's length of stay in Multnomah County Jail ends. From 2006 to 2007, the percentage of people who waited in jail to be sentenced went up.
A greater percentage of African Americans wait to be sentenced than other races, but they're also slightly more likely to be granted a release on their own recognizance (except for Native Americans) and less likely to use or be granted bail (again, except for Native Americans).
African Americans also face a greater chance of being put into discipline housing. The percent of Black prisoners in discipline housing increased at the Multnomah County Detention Center, but decreased at the county's Inverness Jail.
That decrease at Inverness comes with a caveat – the percent of Blacks decreased in the general population rooms, increased in the room allocated for either discipline issues or overflow population and mental health room.
To read the complete statistics on jail populations click on http://www.mcso.us/public/stats/misc_reports/07RaceReport.pdf