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Native people are overrepresented in state prisons across the Mountain West, report shows

Spirals of barbed wire sit atop a metal chain link fence with blue sky in the background
Kate Ter Haar
Flickr Creative Commons
In Colorado, 3.4% of all prisoners are Native, but Native peoples make up 1.7% of the state population.

In Wyoming, Native people make up just 2% of the state’s population but account for 7% of the state’s prison population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which analyzed 2021 data from both the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the American Community Survey.

In Utah, Native people make up only 1% of all residents but 6% of all prisoners. Native people are also overrepresented in state prisons in Idaho (3.7% of prisoners), Colorado (3.4%) and Nevada (2.3%). In all three of those states, Native people make up 1.7% of the population.

Mike Wessler, communications director at the Prison Policy Initiative, said this data raises the question of how these states approach challenges like poverty, mental health, and substance use.

“Our nation, these states, have treated these as criminal problems to solve rather than economic challenges or health challenges that they need to provide different solutions for,” Wessler said.

The only Mountain West to state to have a lower Native incarceration rate is New Mexico, where 11.2% of the state population is Native and 8.8% of the prison population is Native.

Nationwide, Native people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons at a rate of 763 per 100,000 people. That’s more than double the national average of 350 per 100,000, and more than four times higher than the incarceration rate of white people in the U.S. at 181 per 100,000.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.
Copyright 2023 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Kaleb Roedel
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