Civil Disagreement: Race and Crime
Posted by Lynne Varner
Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is a feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Today the colleagues discuss racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Lynne Varner:Hi Bruce, I was one of many readers appalled to pick up my newspaper and read that Justice Richard Sanders attributed overrepresentation of African Americans in Washington state prisons to the simple fact that they commit more crime.
Other judges in earshot of Sanders' remarks pointed out that in their experience, the makeup of prison populations rests not only on who's doing the crime, but how they're impacted by racial and economic disparities in the system.
For example, this University of Washington [study](http://www.soc.washington.edu/users/kbeckett/Enforcement.pdf)) found that whites sell and use drugs at higher or similar rates to African Americans. Both groups do the crime. but only one group is disproportionately more likely to do the time. Couldn't a bright legal mind like Justice Sanders have discussed this?
Or how about the 100 to 1 disparity in prison sentences for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. This disparity has received a lot of attention and Congress is making changes but essentially, crack dealers, who studies have proven tend to be people of color, receive overwhelmingy higher prison sentences than defendants charged with crimes involving powder cocaine, a drug used and sold largey by whites. Doesn't this disparity color the prison population?
The Seattle Times Editorial Page was right to withdraw its endorsement. Quality of the candidate matters. The choice wasn't one of political correctness, an idioctic term meant to rebut efforts to move beyond simplistice statements. It was about demanding accuracy and a deeper level of thinking from our elected officials. A smart conversation about racial disparities can't be hand with an off-hand sentence or two. For example, when it comes to murder, a disproportionate number of them are committed by people of color. Not so for drugs, but true for murder. Important difference.
People are bright Bruce. They can hold more in their brains than simple statistics and pat answers, particularly answers that bolster stereotypes. Discussing racial disparities in the legal system doesn't absolve anyone of crimes committed. I don't know of any black defendant arguing for a reversal of their conviction because the police didn't also catch the white drug dealers. Instead, this is an issue is for the rest of us to grasp so that when we talk about race and crime - as Justice Sanders attempted to do - we know what we're talking about.
Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, I was appalled not so much at what Justice Sanders said but by the reaction to it. He said was that African Americans account for a disproportionate number of prisoners because they commit a disproportionate amount of crime. He didn't say it was the only reason, but he thinks it's the principal reason, and I don't think you can argue around it.
You have written about the difference in penalties for powder cocaine and crack cocaine, both involving acts that usually don't end in an arrest. I'll grant you your point about racial disparities there, and I support lessening the penalties for crack. But if cocaine is the best example you have, murder is the best example I have. Almost all murder is reported, because there is a dead body, and there are a lot of arrests for it. In 2009 there were 13,636 murders reported in the United States and 9,739 arrests.
Begin with the simple figure that the U.S. population is 79.7 percent white and 12.8 percent black. You can't expect the share of crime to be exactly 80-13, because the average black American is younger than the average white American, and that in itself should make the black rate higher. But not too much higher.
Look up the FBI crime statistics, [here](http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_43.html) and [here](http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/offenses/expanded_information/data/shrtable_01.html). The vast majority of murderers kill within their race. And in 2009, 48.7 percent of murder victims were white and 48.6 percent were black. Look at arrest statistics: 48.7 percent white, 49.3 percent black. The disparity between the races is *already there at the point of arrest*. And the victim statistics suggest it is there at the point of the crime.
The racial disparities are less dramatic for most other crimes. For rape, for example (16,362 arrests in the U.S., 2009), 65.1 percent of those arrested were white, 32.8 percent black. Go down the scale a long way to an unserious crime, public drunkenness, and the arrestees (469,958 of them!) were 82.5 percent white and 15.1 percent black.
None of what I've said, or what Sanders said, answers *why* this is so. Certainly it is not an accusation that people of your race have a *propensity* (whatever that is) to commit crime. Perhaps 6,500 African Americans commit murder each year in the United States--but there are about 39,000,000 African Americans. So 99.98 percent don't do it.
A final thing. What Sanders said sounds bad to liberals, I think, partly because it's taboo among them and they aren't used to hearing it, and partly because they think differently than conservatives and libertarians about the causes of crime. Liberals tend to blame crime on things outside the criminal--poverty, racial discrimination, etc. These are social conditions, social forces, things that apply to *groups*. Conservatives and libertarians tend to blame crime on things in the criminal's mind, starting with with he thinks and what he chooses to do. Their way to thinking puts more blame on the individual, and makes them more comfortable with punishment.
You can see this difference in the story about Sanders. He thinks immediately of individuals. When he hears the statement that the disparity in prison population is caused by discrimination in the justice system, his reaction was to say, Show me a prisoner unjustly convicted because of his race. Because if the liberals' explanation is correct, there should be hundreds of thousands of such prisoners. But the liberal thinks its an unfair question. I think it's the right question.
**Lynne responds:** Bruce, there are many cases of cross-racial bias in the criiminal justice system. Enough to warrant a book, "Actual Innocence: When Justice Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right." NY: Penguin Books. (2001)
But the more challenging factors that help color our prison population are the way we enforce certain laws, particularly those around drugs. I came across this [New York Times column ](http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/23/opinion/23blow.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss) that offers a pretty good explanation.
The unfortunate thing is that when race is posed, the predictable reaction is amnesia (this country doesn't have a history of racial discrimination!) and defensiveness (you show me one person convicted for being black!).
Sanders has in the past acknowledged racial biases in the system. He once signed a dissent that would have reversed a conviction obtained by a prosecutor who excused the only African American from the jury in a case where the defendant was also African American. Sounds like a judge who knows race matters.
It doesn't matter that nearly everyone in prison is there for a crime they committed. I'm not trying to free any prisoners. I'm arguing for fairness in a system that has come a long way but isn't there yet as proven by the University of Washington study that showed when it comes to marijuana whites do more of the crime and far less of the prison time.
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