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Originally published Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Jerry Large

What's the real reason?

A headline about voting felons has a visceral impact, maybe enough to get us to pay real attention to the larger story underlying it — why so many minority men wind up in prison.

Seattle Times staff columnist

A headline about voting felons has a visceral impact, maybe enough to get us to pay real attention to the larger story underlying it — why so many minority men wind up in prison.

Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Washington's law banning felons from voting violates the 1965 Voting Rights Act because it disenfranchises minority voters disproportionately.

Even worse, our justice system — by treating groups differently — is creating more of the very problems it was supposed to address.

The good news is that what is broken can be fixed if we summon the will to do something about it.

The ruling cited "durable, sustained difference in treatment faced by minorities in Washington's criminal justice system," and said those differences can't be accounted for by "factors independent of race."

Gonzaga University law professor Lawrence Weiser represented the prisoners, with the help of his students. "This case recognizes there is a problem in our society and it needs to be addressed," he said Wednesday. "All of us need to think about what we do to perpetuate that system."

We all know the United States has been on an imprisonment frenzy for more than two decades.

It seems to have reached its peak, but only because the cost was bankrupting states.

A Tuesday editorial in The New York Times said the United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, has 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

We also know that Americans who are black, Hispanic or Native American are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates.

Part of the broad difference between incarceration rates can be explained by a higher crime rate among some black men. The rest is attributable to different treatment in policing, prosecution and sentencing.

University of Washington sociology professors Katherine Beckett and Robert Crutchfield provided much of the information that supported the prisoners' case in Washington.

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Crutchfield told me that in this state more than half the difference in incarceration rates has to do with different treatment by the justice system.

As citizens, we ought to be outraged by the different treatment. At the same time, given that not committing crime is an excellent way to stay out of prison, we should ask why there is more crime in some demographic categories.

I pulled from my files a 2004 study by sociologists Becky Pettit of the University of Washington and Bruce Western of Princeton University. It found that incarceration disparities have been getting worse and that economic and education levels have a big impact.

After World War II, new opportunities allowed black Americans to begin closing income and education gaps that separated black and white people. That progress began to stall in the 1970s.

Crime rates for black men who came of age before and after that stall look quite different.

The rate of crime (at least the kind that makes daily headlines) is higher for people with less education and people who live in poor neighborhoods.

Imprisonment has been making things worse by changing the life course of young, less educated black men. Far from being a crime deterrent, imprisonment now is seen by many as a normal rite of passage for those men.

The social disruption that imprisonment causes affects whole communities for the worse.

We have a cycle that can be broken if it is addressed by all the institutions that play some role in sustaining it today.

Helping more kids succeed in school would be a huge first step. For that to happen, we have to support vulnerable families, help them prepare their children from birth for success.

People adapt to the circumstances around them. If we put better opportunities within their grasp, young people will pursue them.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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