People of color incarcerated at higher rates in New Hampshire, but data is limited

Razor wire hangs from the fence at the reception area at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord in March 2020.

Razor wire hangs from the fence at the reception area at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord in March 2020. Charles Krupa / AP file photo

Courtesy—

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 04-21-2024 11:38 AM

Modified: 04-24-2024 11:47 AM


Four years after a commission to study law enforcement in New Hampshire produced a series of recommendations about better policing practices, people of color continue to be disproportionally incarcerated in the state at virtually the same rates.

For both Black and Latino populations, incarceration rates at the state prison exceed their demographic make up of New Hampshire. Black people make up less than two percent of the state’s demographics, yet are seven percent of the prison population. Latino communities represent four percent of the state but six percent of the prison, according to a brief from the New Hampshire Center for Equity and Justice, which uses data from the Department of Correction’s 2022 annual report.

The same rates held true in 2020, when the Monitor collected state prison demographic data.

These numbers mirror national trends, said Anthony Poore, the president of the New Hampshire Center for Justice and Equity. Regardless, they highlight a concerning trend in the state, he said.

“That’s four times our population stat, that is currently incarcerated,” he said. “Is justice equal and is it delivered equally here in the state of New Hampshire? Simply based upon these numbers alone one would have to say maybe not.”

The elevated incarceration rates for people of color send a clear message to Gilles Bissonnette, and one he has known to be true since he started working for the ACLU of New Hampshire in 2013.

“It’s hard to dispute the notion that we have significant disparities with respect to incarceration rates in New Hampshire relative to the racial demographics that we have of residents in the state of New Hampshire,” he said. “That’s been the case for years, for as long as I’ve been here.”

To Bissonnette, who serves as the ACLU’s legal director, there’s an obvious sequence of questions that follow these incarceration rates – does the root cause of these disparities lie within the court system, arrests or stops from law enforcement?

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It is nearly impossible to answer these questions because the state does not publish demographic data aside from that of the state prison population, he said.

“At the very least we should have data that helps inform us as a state as to why these incarceration rates, incarceration disparities exist,” he said. “It will inform us how to address those particular issues.”

Data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, annual reports from the state Department of Corrections and county reports do not reveal demographic data on who is incarcerated, aside from the state prison population.

However, this data is available within Merrimack County and compiled with prison intakes.

In 2023, the county department of corrections had just over 1,800 intakes. Of that population, nine percent identified as Black while 4 percent identified as Latino, according to Travis Cushman, the superintendent of the county department of corrections.

Information sharing among the state’s ten counties can be complicated, said Cushman, typically due to resources available in each county.

“Every county is independent,” he said. “We might have a little more technology down here than Coos County.”

The fragmented data that is available begins to tell a story of discrimination in the state, said Poore. But any further analysis is hindered by what is missing.

“The lack of race specific data collection and arrest, booking, sentence and jail population limits further analysis,” he said. “As a state we are piss poor when it comes to data collection.”

In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, Gov. Chris Sununu established the Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency Commission to examine policing in the state and issue reform recommendations.

Part of the recommendations, which ranged from the use of body cameras to publicizing agreements with school districts, included statewide demographic data collection for all interactions between law enforcement and the public.

The legislature has repeatedly rejected acting on this recommendation, said Bissonnette, which only prolongs fixing a fragmented system.

Critics of the recommendation insinuated that the need for data collection to address this issue assumes that there is a problem in New Hampshire. But that might not be the case, said Bissonnette. Again, stronger data collection would help reveal that.

“We may have a problem, we may not. We don’t know because we don’t have the data,” he said. “That’s the classic chicken or the egg issue.”