Heather McDonald takes a probing look at whether America’s criminal justice system truly is racially biased. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the objective evidence does not match the conventional narrative:
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.
Another criminologist—easily as liberal as Sampson—reached the same conclusion in 1995: “Racial differences in patterns of offending, not racial bias by police and other officials, are the principal reason that such greater proportions of blacks than whites are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned,” Michael Tonry wrote in Malign Neglect. (Tonry did go on to impute malign racial motives to drug enforcement, however.)
There’s no doubt that the incarceration rate in this country is shockingly and troublingly high. However the solution to this problem is not to pretend that it is the fault of the justice system, but to recognize that it comes from a culture of lawlessness. At some point, the crisis becomes self-perpetuating. A culture in which criminal activity is common is likely to be a culture that produces more crime. People live to the norms they see, and when violence, drug use, and crime become endemic, there is more likely to be more crime, violence, and drugs.
The problem with the idea of less vigorous law enforcement is that the ones who are hurt by increases in crime tend also to be disproportionately members of minority groups. Gang-bangers and drug dealers victimize their own communities, not the suburbs. The effects of out-of-control inner-city crime are not helped by efforts to concentrate resources in places where crime is not such an immediate and pressing problem.
What then is the solution? The neglect of America’s inner cities is a travesty made worse by a false sense of noblesse oblige on the part of well-intentioned outsiders. The only lasting solutions will have to come from within. The problem is not who is getting caught, but who are committing the crimes. Trying to solve the wrong set of problems helps no one.