I had a long and difficult discussion today with a group of visiting clergymen who wanted to know more about prison ministry. Due to my years of work in that field, as both a part-time and a full-time chaplain, I was asked to speak with them over lunch.
It turned into a heated debate over racism in the criminal justice system. Several of these ministers (mostly Black, but some of other races) insisted that Black people were being treated unfairly by the police and courts, and incarcerated in far greater proportion to their numbers than defendants of other races.
I took umbrage at this. I pointed out that the simple fact of the matter was, Black people are committing more crimes per capita than other races. This, as you can imagine, was like a spark to tinder (or explosives, for that matter!) I was accused of being racist, unfeeling, uncaring, blind to reality . . . you name it.
The fact remains, though, that what I said was the plain and simple truth. I don't deny that the Black community has endemic problems that are causing this explosion in crime: and I fully support efforts to deal with those problems and rectify the situation. I applaud and support those who are being honest and truthful in doing so. Bill Cosby, the famous comedian, is particularly prominent in this effort. However, many other Black leaders are flatly refusing to face reality. They continue to assert that the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks for crimes is the result of racism.
My audience today cited numerous sources to substantiate their viewpoint. A pastor from Iowa argued that his state's criminal justice system unfairly discriminated against Blacks, and cited TalkLeft in his support:
Emotions on the issue flared anew this July when the Sentencing Project released its study showing the rate of black incarceration in Iowa was six times that of whites. Feeding that disparity, researchers said, was that blacks make up just 2.3 percent of Iowa's 2.98 million residents.
. . . Those who defend and advocate for the disadvantaged argue that state leaders have done almost nothing to address the biases in the justice system that contribute to Iowa's notoriety.
Another cited Human Rights Watch in support of his position:
The disproportionate representation of black Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system is well documented. Blacks comprise 13 percent of the national population, but 30 percent of people arrested, 41 percent of people in jail, and 49 percent of those in prison. Nine percent of all black adults are under some form of correctional supervision (in jail or prison, on probation or parole), compared to two percent of white adults. One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation in 1995. One in ten black men in their twenties and early thirties is in prison or jail. Thirteen percent of the black adult male population has lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws.
Racial disparities in incarceration increased in the 1980s and 1990s as the number of blacks sent to prison grew at a faster rate than the number of whites. Between 1979 and 1990, the number of blacks as a percentage of all persons admitted to state and federal prisons increased from 39 to 53 percent. Although the admissions for both races, in absolute numbers, rose sharply, the increase was greatest for blacks.
Human Rights Watch has been able to analyze state prison admissions based on raw data on 37 states gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice through its National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP) for 1996, the most recent year for which this data is available. In 17 of these states, blacks constituted more than half of all prison admissions. Maryland had the highest percentage of black admissions, 79 percent, followed by Illinois with 74 percent, Louisiana with 73 percent, and New Jersey with 72 percent.
In every state, the proportion of blacks in prison exceeds, sometimes by a considerable amount, their proportion in the general population. In Minnesota and Iowa, blacks constitute a share of the prison population that is twelve times greater than their share of the state population. In eleven states -- Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming --the percentage of the prison population that is black is more than six times greater than the percentage of the state population that is black.
A third, from New York state, quoted the Justice Policy Institute to support his position that racism was rampant in one county there:
A national group is releasing a report today alleging that blacks in Onondaga County are going to prison on drug offenses at 99 times the rate of whites.
The Justice Policy Institute (JPI) of Washington, D.C., claims in its report that Onondaga County has the second highest rate of racial disparity in the 198 counties it surveyed, said executive director Jason Ziedenberg.
Local reaction to the study was mixed:
- An advocate for alternatives to prison was not surprised by the racial disparity.
- A judge said the justice system in Onondaga County is colorblind.
- A professional pollster and political scientist raised questions about the validity of the study.
The study was based on sentencing statistics in 198 counties from 38 states voluntarily provided to the National Corrections Reporting Program, a federal repository for information on corrections and the use of prisons. The counties represent about half the country's population.
The researchers, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, calculated the number of people - black and white - sent to prison on drug offenses in 2002 and compared that to the county's population and racial breakdown. The study did not provide actual numbers.
"This is not to say that one county necessarily does a worse job than others," Ziedenberg said. "Ninety-seven percent of the other large population counties (in the study) also have a large racial disparity."
Pollster Jeff Stonecash, who read the study, said he is leery about the way it was done.
"It's work I would not accept," said Stonecash, a pollster and political science professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. "The bottom line is we should be cautious in accepting this."
The study's findings came as no surprise to Marsha Weissman, executive director of Syracuse's Center for Community Alternatives. Many factors contribute to the disparity, she said.
Police are more likely to saturate poor communities and communities of color, they are more likely to use their discretion differently when dealing with a white or black suspect, and most in the criminal justice profession are white, she said.
That means that more often than not, blacks will be dealing with white police officers, white prosecutors and white judges, and that can make a difference in how they're treated, Weissman said.
Once a suspect is "in the system," the consequences can be dire, she said.
"It marginalizes them for life, barring people from employment, education opportunities and housing options," Weissman said. "It's basically reintroducing racial segregation."
Of the 175,000 people admitted to prison nationwide in 2002 on drug charges, more than half were black, although blacks make up less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, the study said.
Onondaga County Undersheriff Warren Darby said the study's conclusions could be misleading.
"It sounds like we're targeting (the black population), and we're certainly not," Darby said. "We go to where the drug investigations lead us and that means in any economic strata or racial group."
Onondaga County Judge Anthony Aloi said he and his colleagues "have no control over who's arrested here or prosecuted here."
"I don't get up every morning saying, 'I'm going to send some young black person to jail,' " he said. "I think the criminal justice system here is colorblind."
The reality, said Aloi, is that law enforcement efforts tend to be more concentrated in urban areas where violence and drugs are more prolific.
"The criminal justice system is not the arbiter of all the ills and failures of society," Aloi said.
I listened to my audience as respectfully as possible, and promised to consult their sources (as you can see above). I'd expected this reaction, and was prepared to expose it for the lie it was. I gave them my answer, beginning with a concrete example.
The CBS2 news station in Chicago is tracking every shooting incident in the city between Memorial Day and Labor day this year. They've set up a Google Maps site to show each shooting. Fatal shootings are shown with red pins, non-fatal in blue. The latest version of the map is shown below: click on the link above for an updated version, along with details of each shooting in the sidebar on the left.
I invited my audience to do three things. One: use police and other records to identify the race of every perpetrator of one of these shootings. Two: use the same records to identify the race of every victim of these shootings. Three: examine the demographics of the suburbs where these shootings had taken place, to identify the racial make-up of these areas. I offered a substantial bet that both the perpetrators and the victims would be predominantly Black, as would the population of the areas concerned.
None of my audience was willing to accept my bet.
I then handed out copies of a superb article by Heather Macdonald in the Spring 2008 issue of City Journal, titled: "Is The Criminal-Justice System Racist?". It's a magnificently researched and argued piece of work, and I highly recommend it to any interested reader. I'll quote only two paragraphs here:
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.
Racial activists usually remain assiduously silent about that problem. But in 2005, the black homicide rate was over seven times higher than that of whites and Hispanics combined, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. From 1976 to 2005, blacks committed over 52 percent 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 percent of all violent-crime arrests, including 56.3 percent of all robbery and 34.5 percent of all aggravated-assault arrests, and 29.4 percent of all property-crime arrests.
Ms. MacDonald makes a very strong case indeed - almost unarguably so. I supported her case with examples of my own, making the point that the criminal justice system was not racist, but merely dealing with the perpetrators of crime. The latter's racial make-up squared neatly with the facts of the matter.
After hearing me out, some of my audience seemed rather glum as we broke up. Others were happy to hear the facts of the matter, and thanked me for the copies of the article I had provided. Still, I couldn't help feel, as I watched them leave, that my words hadn't gotten through to many of the group.
Too many people have too much invested in a feel-good, politically-correct approach to the problem, rather than facing the facts of the matter. They don't want to let the truth get in the way of their impressions . . . and until that changes, we won't find a solution to the problem.
That's the long and the short of it.
(I almost said "There's the problem in black and white," but that would have been insensitive!)