Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream didn't include more black men being in prison than in college.
But nearly 50 years after his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, that's the reality.
In the past few decades, blacks and Hispanics have become grossly overrepresented in the nation's prison population. In fact, of the 2.3 million people incarcerated nationwide, 60 percent are black or Hispanic, according to The Sentencing Project, a national organization that advocates for system reform.
Black men today have a 1-in-3 likelihood of being incarcerated in state or federal prison in their lifetime, and Hispanics a 1-in-6 chance, compared with a 1-in-17 chance for white men. In Colorado, blacks are incarcerated at 6.6 times the rate of their white counterparts, and Hispanics at twice the rate.
Overall, blacks are arrested, imprisoned, denied early parole, re-arrested, and sent to death row at rates far greater than their representation in the population.
If he were alive today, King would speak out against such racial disparity, believes Rosemary Harris Lytle, president of the Colorado Springs Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
"When you are incarcerating people disproportionately to their [population] numbers, there's nothing there that says 'civil rights,'" she says. "The criminal justice system is fraught with disproportionately."
Seeing the subtext
El Paso County is no anomaly. The county jail historically has twice as many minorities as whites among its inmate population. And in 2010-2011, the daily average detention population in the Division of Youth Corrections for the 4th Judicial District, which includes El Paso and Teller counties, was 40 percent white, 28 percent black and 27 percent Hispanic.
Yet, El Paso County is 80 percent white, 6 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
Christie Donner, executive director of the Denver-based Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, has battled the trends of incarceration since 1999. Some prejudices are unintentional, she says. For example, a white person who shows up to court with an expensive lawyer, a suit and tie, and plenty of "Yes, sirs" and Yes, ma'ams" can make a different impression than a person of color who wears baggy jeans and doesn't speak politely, she says.
"Nobody ever says black people commit more crimes, but that's the subtext," Donner says. "And white people are not very comfortable with having this conversation."
Unconscious bias is common in the criminal justice system, believes local Judge Regina Walter.
"The system has been inherently biased," she says, "and for the most part, we've been completely unaware."
In 1995, eight years into serving the 4th Judicial District, Walter had an epiphany during a conference on disproportionate minority confinement. "I was convinced I treated everybody the same, based on race and ethnicity, but I didn't," says the judge.
Walter mistakenly had assumed that blacks charged with possession of crack cocaine were dealing drugs, so she didn't give them an opportunity for substance-abuse treatment.
Realizing that assumption was wrong, she formed the Minority Overrepresentation Committee of the 4th Judicial District's Best Practices Court. She also founded an annual Educating the Children of Color Summit; this year's all-day event is Jan. 28 at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. It's free to high-schoolers, college students under 21 and students' parents. Professionals are charged $25, which funds scholarships. (To register, go to educatingchildrenofcolor.org.)
Some biases are intentional, Donner says. For instance, statistics show blacks use crack cocaine more than the powder form, which whites prefer. Thus, harsher penalties for crack cocaine distribution adversely impact blacks more than whites.
Recent changes across the nation to such sentencing laws should help rectify part of what Walter calls that "institutional racism." Some states require lawmakers considering new criminal justice policies to generate estimates of their racial impacts, similar to fiscal or environmental impact statements.
Several new Colorado laws could reduce minority overrepresentation, Donner says, including a 2010 drug sentencing reform bill that decreases sentences for low-level possession cases.
"My sense is that you're going to see a disproportionate enforcement of those laws against people of color," Donner says. "If we provide more funding for treatment, by reinvesting savings from the Department of Corrections, we may have better outcomes."
It's hard to say whether local efforts have had any impact, says Walter, who also provides diversity training and has spearheaded programs for high-risk youth to help keep them out of the "cradle-to-prison pipeline."
Lytle is pushing for an end to the death penalty, though her father was killed in Indiana at 46 in a robbery-gone-bad that remains unsolved. Forty-two percent of death-row inmates are black nationally, including all three of Colorado's current death-row inmates.
"There are pervasive race and class double-standards that are present in almost every criminal justice setting, from the way police behave to jury selection to sentencing," Lytle says. "That's not to say everyone is bad or racist. Whether intentional or unintentional, we've created second-class citizenship like our great-grandparents faced. This mantle is being reconstructed, and we have to be intentional about dismantling it."