Racial Inequity Matters…Even In Montana

This has been a terrible week for America. We all mourn for George Floyd and every other person who has died at the hands of those charged with our protection. We are all shamed by bad actors amongst us. Our cities have transformed into battlegrounds as African American communities and their allies protest abusive policing.and demand change.

Here in Montana, Governor Bullock and other leaders spoke out in support of minority communities and against police violence. Too frequently, our fellow citizens think we don’t have a race problem here. Montanans are friendly and welcoming. If nothing else, much of our economy depends on tourism. We couldn’t survive without a population open to visitors from near and far.

Regularly, we hear comments that boil down to: We don’t discriminate here. We couldn’t because there are so few minorities. And we leave each other alone here.

Those responses deny the facts. We have deeply troubling racial disparities in our criminal justice system. The Prison Policy Initiative examined incarceration rates for different racial groups in Montana. The summary data isn’t good: Our population is 6% Native American, but Native Americans make up 22% of our prison population. Similar disparities hold for Black and Latino populations, as the chart above shows.

Obviously, the incarcerated-person racial make-up will never match exactly the total population. Unsurprisingly, Montana fits the national narrative: white people are substantially under-represented in the prison population. People of color are over-represented.

How does Montana’s disparity compare? That’s a difficult question to answer. Cross-state comparisons require accounting for fundamental differences in the population of each state, as well as baseline differences in racial disparities. There are no “good” results here. Every state shows substantial disparity.

We wanted to better understand this disparity. Is Montana an outlier? Is Montana really “not that bad” because we are a friendly, open community? This took some work. We had to figure out a way to compare prison populations across states, accounting for disparities in each state to give comparable results. We construct a measure of “distance” from racial parity. We found that Montana ranks 39th our of the 50 states. 

(Click the image to download a larger PDF of the chart)

That’s awfully far down the list for a state that questions our own racial disparities. With results like this, we have to acknowledge racial disparities exist in our community, just like in big cities.


For those interested in the details, we are happy to provide more. Here, we briefly describe the approach.

Define Wi and Wp as the percentage of White people in the incarcerated population, and the total population, respectively.  From the Montana example above, the values are 69% and 88%, respectively.  (We calculate this fort he entire United States, and for each state individually.)  Also let Wr=WiWp.  Notice that this ratio, if the incarcerated white population is the same fraction as the overall population, will be equal to 1.  For Montana, the ratio is 0.78. Define the same terms for Black, Native and Latino groups.  As a general observation, Wr < 1 because white people are typically underrepresented in jails and prisons.  And generally, Br, Nr and Lr are greater than one.  For Montana, these ratios are 6.67, 1.84 and 3.54, respectively.

We could sum up Br, Nr and Lr and call that sum our measure of racial disparity.  However, that would only capture half the story, that minority populations are over-represented. We would fail to capture the baseline that the white incarcerated population is under-represented since Wr varies below 1, by state, and sometimes substantially. 

To adjust for state level differences in white population ratios, we again normalize the Black, Native and Latino ratios by the White ratio to compute our final distance measures:

Distance =BrWr1+NrWr1+LrWr1

Notice in the case where racial disparities do not exist, this “distance’ equals zero.  (That’s why for clarity, we subtract 1 from the ratios.)  The graphic above reports the total distance measure, broken into the three components.

Finally, we should note that we excluded Washington DC, and we have concerns over the Puerto Rico data.  For Washington, D.C. the calculated distance was over 48, which so distorted the graph, it made reading the rest difficult.  Washinton, D.C.has extremely low incarceration rates for white people.  The Puerto Rico data seems to have some reporting errors we have not resolved.