Crime and punishment – and race

In my post on the MSM chatter about the disproportionate number of blacks in American prisons, I took a skeptical view of charges of racism, mainly because no evidence was offered.  Those who made the charges simply assumed a disproportion in numbers meant a perversion of justice.

I don’t believe in statistical justice.  Very little in life works out proportionately, and the attempt to enforce such a formulaic ideal usually ends in tyranny.  Injustices, according to our custom, occur to individuals, and must be proven to be so by positive evidence.  Everything else is rationalistic babble.

I confess that I am no expert on the criminal system, or on black crime and the controversies surrounding it.  So I was fascinated to read, in the worthy City Journal site,  a well-research article by Heather MacDonald addressing the question, “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?”

MacDonald’ answer is no:  most of the data, and most of the studies, appear to show that blacks are imprisoned proportionately to the crimes they commit.

Let’ start with the idea that cops over-arrest blacks and ignore white criminals. In fact, the race of criminals reported by crime victims matches arrest data. As long ago as 1978, a study of robbery and aggravated assault in eight cities found parity between the race of assailants in victim identifications and in arrests — a finding replicated many times since, across a range of crimes. No one has ever come up with a plausible argument as to why crime victims would be biased in their reports. [ . . . ]

Backing up this bias claim has been the holy grail of criminology for decades — and the prize remains as elusive as ever. In 1997, criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen reviewed the massive literature on charging and sentencing. They concluded that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms.  A 1987 analysis of Georgia felony convictions, for example, found that blacks frequently received disproportionately lenient punishment.  A 1990 study of 11,000 California cases found that slight racial disparities in sentence length resulted from blacks’ prior records and other legally relevant variables.  A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas discovered that blacks actually had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites did and that they were less likely to be found guilty at trial. Following conviction, blacks were more likely to receive prison sentences, however — an outcome that reflected the gravity of their offenses as well as their criminal records. [. . .]

Robert Grace, the Los Angeles prosecutor, is acutely aware of the fragility and preciousness of the rule of law.  “As a civilized society, we can’t allow what’s happening in Latin America to take over here,” he says.  “Venezuela and Mexico are awash in appalling violence because they don’t respect the law.”  Thus, when prominent figures like Barack Obama make sweeping claims about racial unfairness in the criminal-justice system, they play with fire. “For any political candidate to make such claims out of expediency is wrong,” Grace says. “If they have statistics that back up the claim, I’d like to see them. But to create phony perceptions of injustice is as wrong as not doing anything about the real thing.”

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.

I remain a firmly entrenched nonexpert on the subject, but I found MacDonald’s evidence persuasive.  Hers is a longish article, well worth a careful read.

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