Friday, June 27, 2008

The Criminal Justice System and Racism

Heather MacDonald asks: Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist? It is a fair question, and MacDonald answers no, stating that the high percentage of blacks behind bars reflects crime rates, not racism.
If a listener didn’t know anything about crime, such charges of disparate treatment might seem plausible. After all, in 2006, blacks were 37.5 percent of all state and federal prisoners, though they’re under 13 percent of the national population. About one in 33 black men was in prison in 2006, compared with one in 205 white men and one in 79 Hispanic men. Eleven percent of all black males between the ages of 20 and 34 are in prison or jail. The dramatic rise in the prison and jail population over the last three decades—to 2.3 million people at the end of 2007 (see box)—has only amplified the racial accusations against the criminal-justice system.

The favorite culprits for high black prison rates include a biased legal system, draconian drug enforcement, and even prison itself. None of these explanations stands up to scrutiny. The black incarceration rate is overwhelmingly a function of black crime. Insisting otherwise only worsens black alienation and further defers a real solution to the black crime problem.
After examining, at length many of hte common charges, that police over-arrest blacks (they don't), that prosecutors and judges over-prosecute and over-sentence black offenders (in fact the opposite is true, in that blacks tend to get more lenient sentences in most crimes including murder), and that the drug wars make more blacks criminals (wrong again), MacDonald concludes:
The evidence is clear: black prison rates result from crime, not racism. America’s comparatively high rates of incarceration are nothing to celebrate, of course, but the alternative is far worse. The dramatic drop in crime in the 1990s, to which stricter sentencing policies unquestionably contributed, has freed thousands of law-abiding inner-city residents from the bondage of fear. Commerce and street life have revived in those urban neighborhoods where crime has fallen most.

The pressure to divert even more offenders from prison, however, will undoubtedly grow. If a probation system can finally be crafted that provides as much public safety as prison, we should welcome it. But the continuing search for the chimera of criminal-justice bigotry is a useless distraction that diverts energy and attention from the crucial imperative of helping more inner-city boys stay in school—and out of trouble.
Often critics of the American criminal justice system will point out that other Western nations have far lower incarceration rates that America. That may be true, but what is their crime rates as well?

How about this question, which MacDonald did not explore, what is the percentage of the black prison population that a). come from single parent households and b). are unwed fathers (or mothers) themselves? Could cultural and socio-economic factors play a greater role than police or prosecutorial conspriacies? Perhaps if those social conditions were addressed then maybe, just maybe, the story would be different?

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