New Hampshire is often viewed, including by those who live here, as a white, homogenous state. But this is no longer true. New Hampshire’s demographics, like those of much of the country, are rapidly changing and becoming more diverse.
For example, in Manchester and Nashua — New Hampshire’s two largest cities — the white population in each has gone from around 98 percent in 1980 to 86 percent and 83 percent, respectively, in 2010. With these pronounced changes have come racial disparities in policing that have been endemic for decades elsewhere in the country.
The numbers in New Hampshire about racial disparities in policing are damning. A recent analysis from New Hampshire Public Radio shows that while African-Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be in local jails nationwide than whites, African-Americans are 5 times more likely to be in local jails in New Hampshire than whites. And in Hillsborough County — the most populous and diverse county in the state — African-Americans are nearly 6 times more likely to be in jail than whites.
Let’s also not forget that pre-trial detention, especially where the person is not dangerous and is simply unable to post bail, can have devastating consequences. Such detentions — whether they last a matter of days, weeks, or longer — can result in job loss and eviction, among other things. Parents can lose custody of their children and may have a difficult time regaining it, even when charges are ultimately dropped. And innocent people who have been in jail for a period of time routinely accept plea deals, just so they can be released, return to their families, and make the matter “go away,” leaving them with permanent records for crimes they did not commit.
The problem doesn’t stop at the local level. Studies have found similar racial disparities in New Hampshire’s state prison system. For example, according to 2014 data from the Sentencing Project, the statewide incarceration rate for African-Americans is 5.2 times that of whites. This mirrors national trends. And, unfortunately, the disparities in New Hampshire aren’t just between Blacks and whites. Hispanics are incarcerated in our state prisons at a rate that is double that of whites.
“The charge was dropped, but the damage had been done: He spent over a month in jail simply for being poor.”
The fact that New Hampshire’s criminal justice system is perpetuating these inequalities is unacceptable. Unequal practices have negatively impacted Granite Staters directly. For example, Jeff Pendleton, a 24-year-old homeless African-American man, was arrested in 2014 for criminal trespass simply for walking in a park near the Nashua Public Library. He was unable to post $100 bail and spent the next 33 days in jail. After the ACLU agreed to represent him, the charge was dropped, but the damage had been done: He spent over a month in jail simply for being poor.
It’s also a common misconception that racial disparities in arrests can be explained by different rates of drug involvement among different races or ethnicities. They cannot. As explained in Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” as well as in the ACLU’s report “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” studies show that at a national level people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. And if there are significant differences in the research, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.
We here in New Hampshire like to think that we don’t have the same problems that exist nationally. But when it comes to racial disparities in policing, that view is just plain wrong. We suffer from the same, unfortunate national trends. Simply put, at no other point in U.S. history have so many people — disproportionately people of color — been deprived of their liberty. And they are being deprived of their liberty right here in New Hampshire. Now is the time that we do something about it.