High Incarceration Rate of Blacks Is Function of Crime, Not Racism

Heather Mac Donald, Investor’s Business Daily, April 28, 2008

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After all, in 2006, blacks were 37.5% of all state and federal prisoners, though they’re under 13% 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.

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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.

Racial activists usually remain silent about that problem. But in 2005, the black homicide rate was more than seven times higher than that of whites and Hispanics combined, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

From 1976 to 2005, blacks committed more than 52% of all murders in America. In 2006, the black arrest rate for most crimes was two to nearly three times blacks’ representation in the population. Blacks constituted 39.3% of all violent-crime arrests, including 56.3% of all robbery and 34.5% of all aggravated-assault arrests, and 29.4% of all property-crime arrests.

The advocates acknowledge such crime data only indirectly: by charging bias on the part of the system’s decision makers. As Obama suggested in the Martin Luther King debate, police, prosecutors and judges treat blacks and whites differently “for the same crime.”

But in fact, cops don’t over-arrest blacks and ignore white criminals. The race of criminals reported by crime victims matches arrest data. No one has ever come up with a plausible argument as to why crime victims would be biased in their reports.

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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 after a felony than whites did and that they were less likely to be found guilty at trial. After 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.

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The media love to target the federal crack penalties because crack defendants are likely to be black. In 2006, 81% of federal crack defendants were black while only 27% of federal powder-cocaine defendants were.

Since federal crack rules are more severe than those for powder, and crack offenders are disproportionately black, those rules must explain why so many blacks are in prison, the conventional wisdom holds.

But consider that in 2006, only 5,619 crack sellers were tried federally, 4,495 of them black. It’s going to take a lot more than 5,000 or so crack defendants a year to account for the 562,000 black prisoners in state and federal facilities at the end of 2006—or the 858,000 black prisoners in custody overall, if one includes the population of county and city jails.

Moreover, the press almost never mentions the federal methamphetamine-trafficking penalties, which are identical to those for crack. In 2006, the 5,391 sentenced federal meth defendants were 54% white, 39% Hispanic and 2% black. No one calls the federal meth laws anti-Hispanic or anti-white.

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The assertion that concern about crack was motivated by racism ignores a key fact: Black leaders were the first to sound the alarm about the drug, as Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy documents in “Race, Crime, and the Law.” These politicians were reacting to a devastating outbreak of inner-city violence and addiction unleashed by the new form of cocaine.

The crack market differed radically from the discreet phone transactions and private deliveries that characterized powder-cocaine distribution: Volatile young dealers sold crack on street corners, using guns to establish their turf. The national spike in violence in the mid-1980s was largely due to the crack trade, and its victims were overwhelmingly black inner-city residents.

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The first is that drug enforcement has been the most important cause of the overall rising incarceration rate since the 1980s. Not true.

Violent crime has always been the leading driver of prison growth, especially since the 1990s. In state prisons, where 88% of the nation’s inmates are housed, violent and property offenders make up over 3 1/2 times the number of state drug offenders.

Next, critics blame drug enforcement for rising racial disparities in prison. Again, the facts say otherwise. In 2006, blacks were 37.5% of the 1,274,600 state prisoners. If you remove drug prisoners from that population, the percentage of black prisoners drops to 37%.

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The JFA Institute, an anti-incarceration advocacy group, estimated in 2007 that in only 3% of violent victimizations and property crimes does the offender end up in prison. And taking criminals out of poor inner-city communities has allowed the many law-abiding residents there to get on with their lives, freed from constant fear.

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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.

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