The disproportionate incarceration of blacks topped the list of concerns expressed by Utahns who attended a black community town meeting Saturday night.
According to Keith Hamilton, a member of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, 7.8 percent of the Utah inmate population is black. But blacks make up only 0.7 percent of Utah's population."This doesn't make sense," Hamilton said. "This shows a definite bias against blacks in Utah's criminal justice system."
Hamilton also said that, compared to the percentage of black inmates, the percentage of blacks on parole is considerably less - about 4.1 percent. This is not a good sign, he said.
"It suggests more blacks are sent straight to prison rather than being put on probation. Whites and other ethnic minorities are more likely to be put on probation than blacks are."
Hamilton is one of several members of the Black Advisory Council who met with the public to discuss issues impacting Salt Lake's black community during Saturday night's meeting, held at the Salt Lake Community College South City campus. Mildred Sparks, director of the State Office of Black Affairs, and Mayor Dee Dee Corradini also attended the meeting.
The Black Advisory Council was officially established by Gov. Leavitt in August 1996.
During the meeting, members presented the 10 objectives of focus for the council and reported on progress made through surveys and studies, activities and task forces created by the council.
Hamilton presented an overview of the adult and juvenile criminal justice system from a minority perspective, saying that "things are getting somewhat better, but until we understand why the disproportionate numbers were so high in the first place, we can'treally attack the problem. We need to find out where the biases are."
He reported that the Board of Pardons and Parole is currently studying the problem of disproportionate incarceration.
Access to public services, economic opportunities, and education and health for ethnic children were also discussed.
E. Faye Wine, vice-chair of the council, talked of the impact of recent federal welfare reform on ethnic populations. Council Chair Emma Houston finished up the presentations with a discussion of diversity training in workplaces.
"It is our (the council's) responsibility to ensure that state agencies provide diversity training so that people can know how to work with, and relate to minorities," she said.
Corradini arrived late to the meeting after a day of skiing and spoke for a few moments about the 2002 Olympics.
"We need to promote the diversity that is really part of our state during the Olympics and Paralympics," Corradini said. She suggested the creation of a program to showcase Utah's cultural diversity that would last for the duration of the Olympic events.
The final moments of the meeting consisted of dialogue between the council members and the residents who attended. While disproportionate incarceration was the biggest concern voiced by residents, education followed closely.
Suggestions for improvement in education included putting more literature from black authors on school reading lists and creating school programs to help build self-esteem in minority children.
Even though the group was small, Sparks was happy with the turnout. She said that feedback from the meeting would be incorporated into the council's work plan.