Crime and punishment, race and class

The burdens of crime and incarceration are not evenly spread; instead, they are highly concentrated by race and class. Neither race nor class alone is a sufficient explanatory variable. (Bruce Western has done groundbreaking work on this.)

The picture is worst for African-Americans; even adjusting for overall lower incomes, African-Americans suffer much more crime than do members of other ethnic categories. Homicide provides the most dramatic example; representing less than 15% of the population, blacks suffer more than 50% of the murders.

Like all crime problems, this problem tends to be self-sustaining. Since enforcement and prosecution resources are much more equally distributed than is crime, an offender who commits a crime where crime is common is less vulnerable to arrest, vigorous prosecution, and a stiff sentence than an offender who commits the same crime in a more law-abiding neighborhood.

Strong patterns of residential segregation by race and class plus differential crime rates together mean that the average poor African-American grows up in a higher-crime environment than a white American of comparable income or a more prosperous African-American. And since higher-crime areas are also lower-punishment-per-crime areas, crimes committed against poor black people draw lower-than-average punishments.

Thus the current system fails to fulfill the Constitutional mandate of “equal protection of the laws,” if “equal protection” means that a crime against a poor or black person will be investigated as diligently, prosecuted as forcefully, and punished as severely as the same crime against a rich or white person.

Assuming that the threat of punishment has some deterrent effect, growing up where that threat is smaller – and licit economic opportunity less available – should be expected, other things equal, to lead to a higher rate of criminal activity. And indeed that is what we find. African-Americans are far more heavily victimized than others, but not as a result of cross-ethnic aggression; crime is overwhelmingly intra-racial.

Despite the effective penalty discount for crimes committed in areas where poor African-Americans concentrate, higher crime rates there lead to much higher levels of incarceration. An African-American man who fails to graduate from high school has a better-than-even chance of serving prison time before his thirtieth birthday.

High rates of African-American incarceration have not escaped public notice. But, paradoxically, efforts to reduce the racial disproportion in the prison population are likely to intensify the implicit racial discrimination among victims that results from lower per-crime rates of punishment, leaving African-Americans even more exposed to victimization. The critique of the current system in terms of imposing prison terms and the consequent social stigma on a much higher proportion of African-Americans than of whites is fully justified by the facts, but the mechanisms involved are far more subtle than conscious, or even systemic, racial discrimination by officials against black perpetrators.

Indeed, racial disproportion in incarceration has grown even as racial prejudice and discrimination have become less marked, in part at least because the criminal justice system has become more diligent about punishing crimes against black victims. Providing something closer to “equal protection of the laws” would make the problem of racial disproportion in punishment worse, not better, unless and until higher per-crime punishment risks caused black crime rates to fall. While the standard critique portrays a melodrama, the reality is a tragedy.

Worse, insofar as the impact of incarceration rates on crime rates is subject to the law of diminishing returns, it is likley that further increasing the incarceration rate among poor African-Americans would have modest – or perhaps even negative – net impacts on crime.

The urgency of finding means of reducing crime and incarceration simultaneously – by using punishment more efficiently, but using punishments other than confinement, or by using means of crime control other than punishment – is therefore especially high in poor, black neighborhoods.

[This is the fourth in a series of posts drawn from my book When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment Previous posts covered the logic of crime control policypositive feedback and strategic enforcement, and benefits and costs.  A final post will provide a laundry list of specific recommendations.]