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, […]