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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Black Americans land in prison at six times the rate of white Americans. That's according to a new study from the Sentencing Project, which advocates for prison reform. The disproportionate jail rates are nothing new, but where prisoners live may surprise you.

For more, we've got Ryan King, co-author of the Sentencing Project Report, and Karen Garrison. She has twin sons currently in the prison system.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. RYAN KING (Policy Analyst, Sentencing Project): Thank you.

Ms. KAREN GARRISON (Member, Families Against Mandatory Minimums): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So Ryan, we have heard a lot about disparities. What's new here?

Mr. KING: Well, unfortunately, what this report shows is it's more of the same and it's a continuation of a trend that's been going on for decades. And that is that when we talk about rates of incarceration, when we see who is in the American prison system, and these are predominantly African-American, predominantly young African-American males.

And in this particular case, we also see that in a number of states, there's quite a significant differential in the youths. So we have some states whereas the African-American rate of incarceration is in the neighborhood of 14 times out of whites. And these disparities within state borders, we think, are quite alarming.

CHIDEYA Where is the epicenter of the disparity?

Mr. KING: Well, it varies a little bit(ph). And what we found is quite interesting from this report was that we actually saw high rates of racial disparity in the Northeastern states and some of the Midwest states. I think this is particularly important because in some of the Northeastern states, frequently, the issue of race is not spoken about in the same way that it is maybe in the South. The historical legacy is different and in a lot of these states there's probably thought that racism in the criminal justice system is less of a concern.

And so what we see these very, very disparate rates of incarceration in states like New Jersey and Connecticut, I think that will be quite surprising to residents of those states. And it's important that this report can get a conversation going there. That is our hope.

CHIDEYA: Karen, take us inside your family. You've got twin sons, 10 years into sentences. They were in college at the time. What went down?

Ms. GARRISON: Well, about 6:00 in the morning, they came and arrested them and charged them with one count cocaine conspiracy. Upon arrest, there were no guns, no drugs. They had, like, $14 between them. They went to trial. Let me see, they were arrested in April. They graduated from Howard University in May. They went to trial in June. They were scheduled for sentencing in September.

And I was able to afford - my family was able to afford one paid attorney. So it rescheduled their sentencing to October. And in October they were given 15 and a half for Lawrence and 19 and a half for Lamont. They had court-appointed attorneys that did very little for them.

So after getting sentenced, we did have one attorney that did a little work on it. Lawrence and Lamont now - and, let's see - Lamont's in Manchester and Lawrence is in Elkton, Ohio.

CHIDEYA: Do you think the sentences are fair? If not, just make your case here. Why do you think they're not fair?

Ms. GARRISON: Well, I think, for a first time non-violent offender, they should have a second chance. The first time you make - anybody can make a mistake. It doesn't matter when - when I tell people that my sons are in prison, they never ask, are they innocent or guilty. They say why they get so much time? I think that everybody is allowed a second chance. I don't believe that the first time you make a mistake and it didn't physically harm anyone, I think they should be allowed a probation or something like that, you know, for an alternative.

CHIDEYA: It sounds like - and correct me if I'm wrong - that you think that they were dealing drugs.

Ms. GARRISON: No. My sons were not dealing drugs, and I'm quite honest about that. And I'm quite sure about that. I had investigated that. We hired - when we hired mister - the lawyer for one of my sons, he investigated even two years - up to two years after the case was over to see if he could even find someone that would admit that they sold drugs or used drugs or anything. My sons are totally innocent.

CHIDEYA: Let me go back to Ryan. Ryan, there are many contested cases that really catch the heart of the African-American community. How do you distinguish between things that are complete miscarriages of justice and things that are poorly sentenced? Is there a difference?

Mr. KING: There is absolutely a difference. And I think, where the nexus of this is the issue of mandatory minimum sentencing and the way that it's used in pre-trial negotiation. So let me sort of flesh that out a bit.

When you have a case where maybe there is questionable evidence, where there's questions of innocence, where there's questions of conduct of law enforcement during an arrest, traditionally, these are case - these are situations that would need to be litigated in the court of law. But what happens is an individual will sit down before a trial with a prosecutor and have an opportunity to take a plea deal. In a number of cases - there are 95 percent of cases that go through court, end up in a plea bargain.

And so what the person - the prosecutor's going to sit down and say, listen, you're facing 15, 20, 30, your mandatory minimum based upon this particular conduct. And you can either take a plea deal now to a lesser charge or you're going to go to trial and probably get these mandatory minimums.

For a defendant who may be relying on a public provision of counsel, who doesn't have the amount of time and resources to be able to provide and investigate this, it's a really difficult gamble to take. And so many individuals will just decide, well, you know what? I'm just going to take the plea, and I'm going to take some time in jail. And a lot of unanswered legal questions exist. And this is a result of these mandatory sentencing.

CHIDEYA: Ryan, let me turn back to Karen. Just briefly, do you have any sense of how prison has changed your sons, their aspirations, their future?

Ms. GARRISON: Well, I think that it would really - I mean, you know, I look at them. They're aging in prison. And they're - I want to say they're getting tough. You know, they're growing up in prison. So, you know, prison is not a good place. No one can convince me it's a good place. You know, and I look at them every day and that - how they age and how they fight to not be prison life. I send them all kind of magazines. I send them everything I can to keep them, you know, I want to call streetwise to what's going on. But, you know, it takes a toll on them. And it takes a toll on the family.

CHIDEYA: Absolutely. Well, Karen and Ryan, thank you so much.

Mr. KING: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Ryan King, co-author of the new nationwide study from the Sentencing Project, and Karen Garrison is the mother of twins, both of whom are doing time in prison. And they joined me from NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters.

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