Despite pandemic, Blacks at Allegheny County jail face inequity in bookings, releases | Analysis

The Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh (Photo via The Pittsburgh Current).

By Charlie Deitch

PITTSBURGH — Just because there’s a pandemic on, doesn’t mean that Black inmates get any more help or leniency from the justice system than they normally would.

On March 16, the jail population was 2,181. This graph shows the population broken down by race:

(Pittsburgh Current graphic)

On April 27, the jail population of 1,656 looked like this:

(Pittsburgh Current graphic)

Despite that drop in numbers, there was still a racial disparity in those who were released:

(Pittsburgh Current graphic)

This means there are proportionally more Black individuals incarcerated now than there was before the pandemic. Of the incarcerated population, Black individuals were still the largest segment of the population, while the total population saw a percentage decrease of white inmates and those of other races. Of the total population, the percentage of Black incarcerated inmates actually grew by four percentage points.

How did that happen? The system never changes. People of color make up 37% of the U.S. population but 67% of the prison population.

Let’s look at some numbers.

Between March 16, 2019, and April 28, 2019, 1,674 people were booked into the county jail. 50.2 percent of them, 841, were Black and 46.7 of them were white. This is despite the fact that only 13 percent of the county’s population is African American.

As I’ve said, bookings at the county jail are down. In fact, from March 16, 2020, to April 28, 2020, only 393 inmates were booked into the county jail. Of that number, 214 of those individuals were Black and 171 were white.

That means despite fewer bookings and an effort by law enforcement to not make minor arrests and fill the jail, the largest percentage of that population is Black. In fact, between March 16 and April 28 of this year, a larger percentage of Black individuals (54.4%) were sent to the county lockup. The proportion of white inmates booked, by the way, was over 3 percent less than last year.

Almost two-thirds of residents in Allegheny County Jail alt-housing facility have COVID-19

That means that during a pandemic proportionally more Black individuals were arrested and booked into the jail than during the same period last year.

Jasiri X, an activist and executive director of 1Hood Media, who has long spoken out about the effects of mass incarceration on Black and Brown people, said even he was surprised that in the time of pandemic, that the numbers were “so stark.”

“I am definitely surprised by that,” Jasiri X said. “But what I’m not surprised about is when you start talking about releasing people from jail, that proportionally, most of those people are not Black. It shows you that when politicians are tasked to release people, it always comes down to profile.

“A lot of politicians think making things safer means locking up more Black and Brown people.”

And while it’s easy to point to one number — the fact that more Black people were released than white people — Jasiri X said proportionality is just as, if not more important. Black people makeup just 13 percent of the county population, a clear minority, but is by the largest part of the jail population. Oddly though, in the jail where black incarcerated individuals are the majority, they aren’t proportionally treated like that when it comes time for release and bookings.

Jasiri X says the argument that more Black inmates were released is a flawed argument when discussing these release numbers.

“To say you released more Black people, but proportionally the Black population increased is a biased argument,” said Jasiri X. “Like Jay-Z famously said, ‘People lie, numbers don’t.’ Here’s the data taken during this pandemic, a worst-case scenario and Black and brown people are the first ones arrested and the last ones freed.

“They were able to take an unjust system and somehow made it even more inequitable.”

Nyssa Taylor, criminal justice policy counsel at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says “racial disparities are pervasive throughout the criminal legal system in Allegheny County. So, sadly, it’s not surprising. Even in a pandemic, stakeholders in Allegheny County are harsher on Black people.”

Taylor says the justice system was constructed to treat Black individuals differently.

“Black individuals are incarcerated at a much higher rate than other races, despite being a smaller percentage of the population, she said. “ACLU-PA’s report on cash bail in Allegheny County showed that Black people and poor people were more likely to get cash bail orders. The ACLU’s report on marijuana arrests shows Black people in the county are six times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people. Racism in the criminal legal system continues, and stakeholders – from the courts to the DA to the county executive – don’t appear to be serious about addressing it.”

As for the increase in bookings at the jail during the pandemic, Taylor added:

“Black people make up about 13% of Allegheny County’s total population but make up over half of the jail population, which suggests that the county’s Black community is overpoliced. All of these pieces of the criminal legal system are connected to each other. Police have excessive contact with Black people, and courts disproportionately keep them incarcerated before they’ve had a trial. Each part of the system impacts the others. And this is the result.”

Charlie Deitch is the editor of the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared