By HEATHER MAC DONALD | Posted Monday, April 28, 2008 4:20 PM PT
The race industry and its elite enablers take it as self-evident that high black incarceration rates result from discrimination.
At a presidential primary debate this Martin Luther King Day, for instance, Sen. Barack Obama charged that blacks and whites “are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, (and) receive very different sentences . . . for the same crime.”
Not to be outdone, Sen. Hillary Clinton promptly denounced the “disgrace of a criminal-justice system that incarcerates so many more African-Americans proportionately than whites.”
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% 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.
The dramatic rise in the correctional population over the past three decades — to 2.3 million people at the end of 2007 — 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.
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.
Racial activists also allege that prosecutors overcharge and judges oversentence blacks. 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 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 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.
Unfair drug policies are an equally popular explanation for black incarceration rates. Legions of pundits, activists and academics charge that the war on drugs is a war on minorities.
They point to federal crack penalties, the source of the greatest amount of misinformation in the race and incarceration debate. Under a 1986 law, five grams of crack triggers a mandatory minimum five-year sentence in federal court; powder-cocaine traffickers get the same five-year minimum for 500 grams.
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.
The press has also served up a massive dose of crack revisionism aimed at proving the racist origins of the war on crack. Crack was never a big deal, the revisionist story line goes. The belief that crack was an inner-city scourge was a racist illusion.
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.
It takes shameless sleight of hand to turn an effort to protect blacks from harm into a conspiracy against them. If Congress had ignored black legislators’ calls to increase cocaine-trafficking penalties, the outcry among the groups now crying racism would have been deafening.
To be sure, a legislative bidding war drove federal crack penalties ultimately to an arbitrary and excessive point; the current movement to reduce those penalties is appropriate. But it was not racism that led to the crack sentencing scheme.
Critics follow up their charges about crack with several false claims about drugs and imprisonment.
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%.
Finally, race and anti-incarceration activists argue that we are sending harmless low-level offenders to prison, disrupting communities. To the contrary: In the overwhelming majority of cases, prison remains a lifetime achievement award for persistence in criminal offending.
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.
When prominent figures such as Barack Obama make sweeping claims about racial unfairness in the criminal-justice system, they play with fire. The evidence is clear: Black prison rates result from crime, not racism. 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.
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.
Mac Donald is a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and a contributing editor to its magazine, City Journal. This piece is adapted from the spring 2008 issue.