Today, 150 years after the partial abolition of slavery, racial inequality continues to structure Tennessee’s criminal legal system. African Americans make up 17% of the state’s population but 44% of its prison population.1 At a time when many states are attempting to reduce their prison populations, Tennessee’s prison population is still growing.
The number of state prisoners hit an all-time high in 2013 and continued to grow by almost 1% in 2014.2
In addition to high incarceration rates, Tennessee has higher than average rates of school suspension, especially for students of color. Black students in Tennessee account for 23% of all students but 58% of school suspensions and 71% of expulsions.3 Some of the starkest disparities are in Memphis, a predominantly black city with double the national average rate of school suspensions. More than 50% of Black males with disabilities were suspended from Memphis high schools at least once in 2011-12.4 Once a student is suspended or expelled, they are more likely to be caught in a pipeline to prison.
In Trousdale County, less than 10% of the county is black: a recipe for racial tensions between a predominantly white rural population and a disproportionately black urban prison population.5
1 “Tennessee Profile,” Tennessee Profile. Prison Policy Initiative, accessed Nov. 4, 2015, http://www.prisonpolicy.org/profiles/TN.html.
2 http://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2014/09/16/bjs2013/ and http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/overtime.html.
3 Edward J. Smith and Shaun R. Harper, Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students in Southern States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, 2015), 44.
4 Daniel Losen, Cheri Hodson, Michael A. Keith II, Katrina Morrison, Shakti Belway, Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap? The Civil Rights Project (Feb. 23, 2015), accessed Dec. 12, 2015, http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-r...
5 “QuickFacts: Trousdale County, TN,” United States Census Bureau, accessed Nov. 21, 2015, http://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045214/47169,00.