Issue #22, Fall 2011

The Crime of Punishment

The late Bill Stuntz was America’s leading thinker on criminal justice—and its hardest to categorize.

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice By William Stuntz • Harvard University Press • 2011 • 408 pages • $35

Crime began to plummet in the United States more than 15 years ago, defying all predictions. It did so for nearly a decade. It happened in every part of the country and in every category of crime. While the rate of decline has leveled off in recent years, to many this social achievement has meant that the country need not worry about crime anymore: The problem has been solved. That view is wrong. In reality, the problem simply exists in two places most Americans (and the media) don’t often bother to look: in crime-ridden sections of cities where minorities live, and in the overcrowded prison system that gives America the world’s highest rate of incarceration. The good news masks an ever-worsening tragedy in criminal justice.

The black homicide rate across the nation is six times that of the white rate. Chicago’s Washington Square neighborhood is poor and close to 100 percent black. The city’s Hyde Park neighborhood is affluent and mostly white. The homicide rate in the first is 26 times that of the second.

The most compelling explanation for the different crime patterns for blacks and whites is the effect of the criminal justice system’s breakdown on poor young black men, who have continued to commit crimes at a high rate, including violent ones, especially against blacks, and who regard the system as dramatically unfair and unworthy of their respect. The rate of imprisonment among white men is the highest it has been in American history, yet the rate is seven times higher among black men.

America’s prison system is now studied largely because of its failure. The prison population is unsustainably high—petty offenders are locked away with hard cases, overcrowding makes conditions dangerous and unhealthy, and financial costs to states are through the roof. The last time the country significantly reduced them, however, in the 1960s and early 1970s, the rate of crime skyrocketed. Neither option is acceptable. So what do we do?

In his posthumously published book, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, William Stuntz argues that reform today should involve putting more control over decisions about what and who should be punished—and for how long—in the hands of neighborhoods most hurt by crime and decimated by punishment. It should, he writes, involve many more cops on the street and many fewer convicts in prison.

But the book is less a blueprint for how to make things right than an explanation of what went wrong over the past century. Its value comes from seeing American criminal justice whole, in an elaborate analysis of a complex system, and challenging the theories of retribution and deterrence that lead to an emphasis on punishment and that have dominated thinking about the field for the past generation.

“Today,” Stuntz explains, “our cities are considerably more violent than before the great crime wave of the twentieth century’s second half, yet the nation’s imprisonment rate is quintuple the rate before that crime wave began. If punishment deters crime, we seem to be getting much less deterrent bang for the imprisonment buck than we once did. Add it all up, and the picture is quite different than the conventional wisdom allows.”

Stuntz’s thesis is that the misrule of politics has replaced the rule of law, with a ratchet of ever-expanding criminal laws giving boundless discretion to police and prosecutors, leading to a system that wrongly punishes too many poor young black men. When the law gives that much discretion, he writes, it stops functioning as law and instead becomes an assertion of power. The recent decline in crime is less a sign of success than of pathology. The encouraging numbers are misleading. They conceal devastating failure.

William Stuntz was one of the most influential and revered legal scholars of his generation, by acclamation the country’s leading thinker about criminal justice. His 25 years as a scholar, first as a law professor at the University of Virginia, then at Harvard, began when crime was a highly politicized issue and ended (tragically early—he died of cancer at the age of 52 in March) when crime had seemingly ceased to be an issue at all.

He developed an original, sweeping, and brilliant understanding of his field, which he sought to synthesize in this work. Three highly respected legal scholars to whom his book is dedicated—Carol Steiker and Michael Klarman of Harvard Law School and Daniel Richman of Columbia Law School—shepherded the essentially finished volume through production and into print after his death. While he co-authored a shelf full of respected textbooks about criminal law and criminal procedure, this is his only book for a general readership. It is his masterwork. The book is written in direct, energetic, and forceful prose, without stinting on nuance. It is a form of purposeful history, with close analyses of Supreme Court cases and doctrine; crime data by race, class, and geography; the workings of American politics at the national, state, and local levels; the interplay of legal, political, economic, and social forces; and attention to seminal documents of law and governance, especially the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

The Collapse of American Criminal Justice is at once a far-reaching indictment and a vision tinged with hope. Stuntz was concerned with how to make sure that the criminal justice system charges and convicts those who deserve punishment while reducing the share of people caught in it who are innocent. He was convinced that “criminal punishment is both too severe and too frequent” and that “legal condemnation is a necessary but terrible thing—to be used sparingly, not promiscuously.” His biggest idea is that criminal justice can only be understood—by non-experts as well as experts—through a grasp of the interactions among its major elements. By showing that the division between criminal law (the elements of crime the government must prove to convict a defendant) and criminal procedure (the steps a police officer must follow to interrogate a suspect) that is respected by most scholars is in fact artificial and misleading, he demonstrated the benefits of approaching the field as a whole.

The history of criminal procedure, he showed, was “not really about procedure at all but about substantive issues, about what conduct the government should and should not be able to punish.” The most important change in this area came in Miranda v. Arizona, the landmark 1966 ruling requiring police, under the Constitution’s guarantee against self-incrimination, to give suspects taken into custody warnings about their right to remain silent and to call a lawyer, because that intimidating situation is likely to make a suspect feel he must talk. The purpose of Miranda was to give every defendant the opportunity to protect himself in the criminal justice system, not just wealthy suspects with access to skilled lawyers who could help make a case that a confession was coerced and therefore involuntary.

But the effect of Miranda was the opposite, Stuntz contended: The new rules gave suspects who could afford a skilled lawyer a “right to avoid police questioning altogether.” That was about one-fourth of criminal suspects. As for the other three-quarters, the warnings afforded few of them protection, because they didn’t understand what the warnings meant or, if they did, had no access to anyone who could enforce them. As long as the police could show they gave the warnings to the other three-quarters, they easily induced most suspects to waive their rights. Stuntz’s criticism underscored that, without provision of criminal defense lawyers for the poor, Miranda had much less beneficial impact than it promised.

Stuntz was a registered Republican and considered himself a conservative, and his reputation as such was buttressed by some truly conservative positions (for instance, he favored forms of profiling after the September 11 attacks). But it was more important to Stuntz that he appeal to both liberals and conservatives than that he be identified as either. The distinctiveness of his outlook was reinforced by his keenness to make his evangelical Christian faith part of his identity as a scholar. His best-known article about the role of Christian ideas in law suggests that Christianity’s most significant lesson in the face of the “arrogance” of contemporary legal theory is the faith’s “humility” about how hard it is to find definite answers to fundamental questions. His humility sometimes gave his writing the tone of an elegy.

Stuntz writes, “Discretion and discrimination travel together.” The percentage of adults who are black, white, and Latino using illegal drugs is roughly the same (10 percent, 9 percent, and 8 percent, respectively), but blacks are three times more likely than Latinos to do prison time for drug crimes and nine times more likely than whites. Why? The misrule of politics, according to Stuntz. Specifically, the misrule results from suburban voters in counties having a lot of say in who gets elected as prosecutors in the urban areas where serious crime is concentrated. As Stuntz writes, prosecutors “are usually elected at the county level” and “counties that include major cities have a much higher percentage of suburban voters than in the past.” Think here, for example, of Fulton County, Georgia, or of Wayne County, Michigan, both so much larger than Atlanta and Detroit, respectively, that they even include some rural stretches. In other words, it is voters for whom crime is largely an abstract problem who exercise sway, while residents for whom the problem is real have less power.

The disappearance of the jury trial symbolizes this shift. Almost all felony criminal convictions today—96 percent—come from guilty pleas obtained by prosecutors elected with the support of suburban voters, not from verdicts reached by juries drawn from residents in areas where crime is concentrated. The system, in Stuntz’s words, has become an “arbitrary, discriminatory, and punitive beast,” which is undemocratic in vesting decisions about punishment in those who aren’t part of the community where those being punished live. Stuntz’s main remedies for this include putting more cops on the street, making more lawyers available to represent criminal defendants, letting local rules about sentencing prevail, and shifting responsibility between local and state governments for who pays for local police and state prisons.

More cops would mean fewer prisoners and more robust local democracy. More lawyers for criminal defendants would mean better-prepared cases, fewer coerced pleas, and more reliable outcomes. Letting local rules about sentencing prevail would reduce the severity and the racial disparity in sentencing, and, with judges presiding over this phase, reduce the power of prosecutors. Shifting responsibility for payment, by having local governments pay a larger share of prison costs and a smaller share of local police costs, would give them an incentive to sentence fewer prisoners—and remove a disincentive from hiring more cops.

Stuntz was troubled by “institutional design and incentives” in criminal law and politics that push toward ever harsher rules and sentences. Power over criminal law is allocated to the three branches of government—the legislature makes it, the executive branch enforces it, and the judiciary interprets it—but they are not checks on one another in this sphere. In fact, legislators and the executive branch’s prosecutors both benefit from “more and broader crimes”: Legislators get more power when they define crimes more broadly because they reduce the role of judges in deciding who is guilty; and prosecutors have more power because they have more discretion about what and how to prosecute. As a result, legislators and prosecutors tacitly cooperate with each other, leading to both more law and less: more on the books, and less on the street, in the sense that the laws are so broad the police and prosecutors get to decide whom to go after and find guilty. Those decisions are about power. In the “rule of too much law,” Stuntz advises, “too much law amounts to no law at all.”

His solution to this set of problems is to replace the vicious cycle that creates them with a virtuous cycle based on cultivating a relationship between those who break the law (or are tempted to) and those who enforce it. For most of the twentieth century in the Northeast and Midwest, the ratio of police officers to prison inmates was two to one. Today, it is less than one to two. “More than any other statistic,” Stuntz writes, “that one captures what is most wrong with American criminal justice.” More cops mean more deterrence. More deterrence means fewer arrests and fewer convictions. In the 1990s, New York City had the biggest drop in urban crime during the decade. It also had the biggest increase in its police force.

Another important component would be fewer prisoners. This would require reducing the severity of sentencing, which is now “more punitive than Russia’s,” reducing the discrimination that contributes to blacks outnumbering whites among prisoners, and reducing “excessive prosecutorial power”—which is “unchecked by law and, given its invisibility, barely checked by politics.” And too much power for prosecutors doesn’t mean there are enough of them: Stuntz calls for many more, so there are more lawyers to litigate cases and the pressure on them to obtain plea bargains is alleviated. That would also require more money for public defenders to represent defendants in court.

A more drastic aspect of his reform vision would be sweeping changes in criminal laws—defining more crimes vaguely so courts would need to resort to jury trials to decide who was guilty. This would excuse from liability for the most serious offenses the least guilty members of a group of criminals and would even allow some guilty defendants to claim that, though their conduct fit the definition of a crime, it wasn’t so “wrongful” that it merited punishment. This would mean “constitutionaliz[ing]” much of basic criminal law, by asking courts to define its boundaries instead of legislators and prosecutors—and giving courts more power when many perceive them to have too much power already.

Issue #22, Fall 2011
Post a Comment

Steve Sailer:

"The percentage of adults who are black, white, and Latino using illegal drugs is roughly the same (10 percent, 9 percent, and 8 percent, respectively), but blacks are three times more likely than Latinos to do prison time for drug crimes and nine times more likely than whites. Why?"

Unless I've been systematically lied to by "The Wire," because blacks are far more likely than whites or Hispanics to _sell_ drugs.

Sep 15, 2011, 12:58 AM

What are the respective populations of the Washington Square and Hyde Park neighbourhoods?

A per capita figure might be more useful.

Sep 15, 2011, 2:15 AM

My guess is that more black people are convicted because more are charged.

And more are charged because more are caught.

More are caught because most drug arrests are by-products of other searches or otherwise falling foul of the law.

Others can speculate on the reasons for the latter.

Sep 15, 2011, 6:49 AM

Steve and Craig, you are both right. The best treatise I've seen on the topic is by Heather MacDonald, at the City Journal:

Sep 15, 2011, 7:34 AM

Craig: "...otherwise falling foul [sic] of the law."

It should be "afoul." Alas, there are probably more prisons in the country than schools. Pass Obama's Jobs bill!

Sep 15, 2011, 8:30 AM

I decided long ago that when I serve jury duty I will not convict on non-violent drug raps. Period, end of story. One reason Prohibition failed was the juries refused to convict.

Sep 15, 2011, 11:22 AM
Bea Foroni:

I would like to see murderers in prison with murderers. Thieves in with thieves, and sex offenders in with sex offenders. Give them some seeds and a shovel, some chickens and a milking cow. Put a big fence around it, and let them work out their problems. No guards inside the prison.

Sep 15, 2011, 12:04 PM
mike whelan:

It's not your fault when you shot another black kid in the head, it's the polices fault.

oh now it all makes sence.

Thanks liberals you're the greatest.

Sep 15, 2011, 1:22 PM

I am not convinced that more police is part of the answer. A high police presence in urban neighborhoods leads to more arrests, often for insignificant crimes, like possession of small amounts of drugs, that are discovered by means of stop-and-frisks (which the constitution considers illegal). It is one of the reasons why urban blacks are far more likely than suburban whites to find themselves in the criminal justice system. For those of us who live in low-income urban neighborhoods, the police are a significant part of the problem.

Sep 15, 2011, 2:02 PM
Steve Sailer:

If you don't have a lot of police, then they need to ration their time to focus upon drug dealers rather than drug users. But they end up frequently convicting drug dealers on drug possession charges, because that's physical evidence, whereas neighborhood witnesses can be intimidated by gangs.

Sep 15, 2011, 2:51 PM

It's fun to cry racism, but alas the explanation is far more mundane. More blacks than whites are in prison for drug crimes because blacks are far more likely than whites to have prior convictions.

Almost no one does real time for first (or even second) arrests. But if you get arrested for a drug crime and you have a long list of priors...

Sep 15, 2011, 5:05 PM

More cops, more free lawyers, sounds great. But who is going to pay for it all?

This sounds like liberal social thinking masquerading as unfeasible criminal justice reform.

Sep 15, 2011, 5:23 PM

Dave, your argument may be true, but how did those blacks end up with so many priors? Is it because they in fact committed more crimes or is it because the police find criminals where they go looking for them? How likely is it for a suburban white person who uses drugs on a regular basis to be actually arrested for possession, when he is not subjected to being stopped by police whenever he is out minding his business?

Sep 15, 2011, 5:43 PM

I think this is a perfect example of statistics being used deliberately to deceive.

Do you really think that an employed middle-aged man with a house and a family who smokes a joint now and then is equivalent to a homeless, never-employed, habitual criminal of 21 who is addicted to and sells crack? Because that is the difference between white and black drug users.

Right now all abused drugs, with the exception of meth and prescription drugs, flow through the inner cities. The inner cities are a lost cause but there is a lot we can do to contain the problem.

We need to legalize marijuana, secure the mexican border and put drug dealers on chain gangs until they are so old they don't remember their own names.

Sep 15, 2011, 6:25 PM

I know this is beating a dead horse but blacks come from single parent homes.Two parent kids get in less trouble.

Sep 15, 2011, 6:28 PM

It's ridiculous to read the comments here that suggest that blacks get arrested more often because they are more prone to crime!

If any of you guys had done any actual *research* before you showed up and started knee-jerk reacting in typical "poor ol' injured white guy" fashion, you might actually have a clue instead of an ignorant opinion.

Sep 15, 2011, 6:35 PM

More blacks go to jail because, on the whole, white people are better able to afford decent legal representation. It is all about how much lawyer you can afford, and the sad truth is that blacks are on average less wealthy than whites.

Sep 15, 2011, 6:47 PM
Craig again:

It should be "afoul." Alas, there are probably more prisons in the country than schools. Pass Obama's Jobs bill!>

Thanks for the snide comment about my education. But I would point out that according to at least some sources, both 'foul' and 'afoul' are acceptable usages. I apologise for posting a definition from a free online dictionary but I did check my Oxford as well.

A snide comment about your education, or about posting the same incorrect post 3 times could go here. Or one about fixating on a trivial bit of usage, not commenting on substance or argument, and the absurdity of your final non-sequitur.

Sep 15, 2011, 10:31 PM
Steven Cox:

Saying the percentage of blacks, whites, and hispanics, all using illegal drugs is similar doesn't really say anything. A crack whore who steals and prostitutes herself for her daily drug habit is not the same thing as someone who shares a joint at a party once in a blue moon. But, they both are using drugs. Taking meaningless stats and then questioning why blacks are nine times more likely to be incarcerated is questionable.

I do think there is racism in the system. But, those stats don't show it.

Sep 16, 2011, 12:10 AM

Strange to label Stuntz a conservative. His ideas sound like stuff straight out of the liberal playbook. Hire lots more police? Sure, lets pile on more pension obligations states can't pay for; hire more lawyers? Sure, all their juicy salaries paid by guess who? --again, taxpayers. Both groups will be indebted to Democrats who will promise to keep the $$ flowing as long as they are (re)elected.
What I would rather see is better policing with what we have (NB, "broken windows" theory of policing), non-violent drug offenses decriminalized and those serving time for same released. Then maybe we could begin to reduce some of the onerous costs of the state correctional systems.
One other note: Hyde Park is home to University of Chicago and has its own police force. People who live here are all busting their butts trying to get the credentials they need for a productive future. In the Washington Square area, attitudes are the opposite: anti-intellectualism reigns supreme. As an inner-city black, if you seem interested in learning and you will be accused of 'being white' and roundly ridiculed. And let's not forget the institutionalized leftist social welfare policies that have played such a big part in permanent dependency and 'victim' status and rewarding single mothers to perpetuate one parent homes for urban blacks. Roll these factors together and who can blame urban blacks for feelings of hopelessness and being left out of the running for the American Dream? Poor inner city blacks certainly face tremendous challenges--but until black family and cultural issues and decades of failed social policies are faced honestly, none of the other ideas will be worth a plugged nickel.

Sep 16, 2011, 2:35 AM
Steve Sailer:

It's seldom mentioned in the press that Barack Obama chose to live for over two decades in a neighborhood with its own private hard-nosed police force: the U. of C. police patrol residential areas outside the campus, including the locations of Obama's old condo and his new stately home.

Sep 16, 2011, 3:16 AM

Please don't suggest the "throw more cops at the area" approach Cops equal money. Where I live, which most people would consider rural, the police force grows exponentially every year, arrests are constant, mostly for victimless "crimes", including driver's licensure issues, marijuana possession, even leash law violations. The police use this uncritically accepted rising arrest rate as an excuse for demanding more officers and a bigger share of tax dollars. It is the same fear tactic that the Bush admin. used after 9/11 which resulted, among other things, in our now enormous deficit. Less cops, more selective enforcement, stiffer penalties for the more serious crimes.

Sep 16, 2011, 11:40 AM

Hyde Park is an integrated, middle class neighborhood surrounded by an overwhelmingly black impoverished neighborhood. Questions of social class irrespective of race may not be irrelevant. Hyde Park police are more like a village police department than the mobilized SWAT teams which seem to be the model for big city forces. Emergency phones are scattered through the neighborhood and I remember using one for an elderly lady who wanted the police to help her home (they assured me they would come for her).
Young black males are the foot soldiers of the drug trade. Standing on street corners in high crime areas they are obvious targets for arrest (for some reason they don't seem to stand around on street corners in affluent suburbs). Middle class drug dealers seem to be somewhat more discreet and may have access to less public venues. The disincentives for acquiring a police record seem to be much more severe for middle class children (can't get into law school) than for kids who gain status in their group or gang when arrested. Lawyers who are highly skilled at making charges disappear are not only expensive but also seem to make themselves available to people who have power and influence (imagine).

Sep 16, 2011, 2:16 PM

All of the fixes proposed are likely to be hugely expensive. More police, more judges, more jury trials -- all cost taxpayer money. Frankly, I think there are better things on which to spend limited tax dollars than ensuring that accused criminals are treated more leniently.

Sep 17, 2011, 4:23 PM

Kevin: "It's ridiculous to ... suggest that blacks get arrested more often because they are more prone to crime! If any of you guys had done any actual *research* before... knee-jerk reacting in typical "poor ol' injured white guy" fashion, you might actually have a clue instead of an ignorant opinion."

Well it's certainly possible that for most crimes, racism accounts for false statistics showing that blacks commit several times more crime than whites. But homicide statistics are quite good, as few people neglect to report them. And they show that blacks are the victims and the perpetrators more often (by an order of magnitude) than whites. Are you so ignorant as to deny this? If not, how do you justify your "knee-jerk" insults? Aren't you the real self-pitying fool here?

Sep 17, 2011, 6:25 PM
Phil O'Dendron:

No useful conclusions can be drawn from usage vs. arrest statistics, because while Latinos traditionally do drugs and drug deals in moving vehicles whenever possible, and whites behind closed doors, blacks are typically "in the street" and more visible ---> more arrests.

Sep 18, 2011, 12:58 PM

As expected, these comments are tripe.

You think we should spend less money on more accurately prosecuting the accused? Jesus Christ, people, that's about all the government is supposed to do! Your austerity is killing us.

Either way, whether you put a man in prison or you hire an officer, it's the same money. If you don't believe that officers are a direct deterrent, that's fine (I'd suggest proving it), but surely you understand trade-offs. Some people have no reasoning.

There are many more points to be addressed, but it'd be worthless. If I was replied to, it would only include some more of that good time feeling and sensation in it.

Sep 19, 2011, 9:34 AM
Judge Dredd:

How to make this as succint as possible? I am a former public defender, prosecutor and now a general jurisdiction district court judge in the reddest part of a very red state. Mandatory sentencing(in my opinion an usurpation of the judiciary's discretion in sentencing) and the "promiscous" application of habitual offender laws by the local prosecutor have led to some of the most egregious miscarriages of justice you can imagine. Case in point: a young defendant was recently force fed 7 yrs flat time hard labor for selling an ounce of oregano. Had he gone to trial he would have received 15 yrs since he had a prior conviction for possessing a cds without a prescription.It's absurd. My state faces a $1.5b shortfall next year,50% of which is the D.O.C.Do you think our legislators will decriminalize the laws? No way,how can they and still appear "tough on crime?" The best they can do is increase good time release credits so they can usher these poor fools out faster.

More police is a great idea. It's a proven fact that the No.1 deterrent to crime is a uniformed,armed presence.The problem is young police officers are ambitious.They aspire to higher rank and becoming detectives.And to them it's just a game of cowboys and indians...and we're the indians. Especially so our youth.Since one now can be searched out in public on a mere hunch,if you are holding you are going to jail.If not,well the youngsters are easy to itimidate and it's good,clean fun.But to inocculate themselves the officer will issue a summons for illegal tint or loud music or some other nonsense to keep those court costs coming.

My criminal docket is 60% drugs. Small amounts.Though only 10% of the local population is african american they are 50% of this group.90% of this group are addicts selling 10 rocks to an undercover cop in order to earn 1 rock from the dealer.The addict gets 15 yrs and the dealer skates.And for every one incarcerated there are 3 to take his place. It never ends.And the prosecutor revels in his ruthlesness,and the judge is afraid to appear soft on crime.

The solution is more education.Teach parents how to be parents. By and large the defendants in front of me were neglected and left to their own devices.How did this happen? I believe the last two generations of our leisure prone society has allowed adulthood to be deferred until the age of around 33(for a few indefinitley). People just won't grow up. They party on and expect the elementary and secondary schools to raise their children. Poor kids are at a special disadvantage since there is no stigma to being incarcerated when just about everyone in your immediate family already is or has been jailed.

For them the best option is positive mentoring through Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Boys and Girls Clubs. However in my district these programs come and quickly go due to lack of funding.

But as sad a story as that may be what saddens me most is that over the past 15 yrs my state legislature has taken away the authority and discretion of the judiciary and givin it to the prosecutors who exercise no discretion at all in over charging and ruthlesly prosecuting all but a select well connected few.

Otherwise I've seen some very good ideas expressed here. Others not mentioned include drug and mental health courts uses a big stick(jail) to keep you off drugs and forces you to drink the healing waters...the other makes sure you take the right drugs so as to keep you from medicating yorself inappropriately.There have been some great successes with these courts. And sometimes when probation is over and the pressure is off there are those who for various reasons revert to their old habits.And then there are those who are and always will be beyond change. But as long as they are non violent, offenders should not be subjected to draconian sentences. That's unjust and not a deterrent to crime.

My,but how I do ramble on.

Sep 21, 2011, 2:22 AM
Monica Dula:

White People sell as many drugs as African Americans but they are less likely to be prosecuted. When they are prosecuted, they are less likely to receive prison sentences.They are usually offered a program or probation. It is a shame that your only point of reference is the Wire......

Sep 21, 2011, 11:57 AM

I know it is asking a lot for Americans to look beyond your own shores but consider this: in almost all countries where the majority population is white, the proportion of non-white prisoners is disproportionately large. There is no close genetic link between New Zealand Maori, Australian Aboriginal, African Americans, Canadian Aboriginals etc., yet all these groups have over-representation in their respective country's crime statistics. If we were to look for a racial link to these crime statistics the only one I can see is the predominantly white power elite.

These may no longer be intentionally racist nation states, but it would appear to me the results of creating/maintaining an underclass of ANY ethnicity, whether by accident or design, will result in the over-representation of that group in crime stats.

I suspect (but have no evidence to support this) that in states with a high level of ethnic homogeneity, (Scandinavian countries? Pre-war Britain?) the poor/underclass, while made up of the same ethnicity as the power elite, show the same disproportionate over-representation in prisons etc.

Would it be too simplistic to suggest that material inequality is the most likely cause? That inter-generational poverty will inevitably mould young minds in a way that can only have unfavourable outcomes for society?

Sep 22, 2011, 5:43 AM

there is no such neighborhood as "washington square" in chicago (in fact, there is a washington square, but it's a small park in an affluent area on the north side). do you mean washington park?

Sep 25, 2011, 5:33 PM

The level of criminality is affected by more factors than policing and the criminal justice system.

The crime wave of the mid 20th century coincided with a massive decrease in stable two parent families and the gradual collapse of industries that provided steady, well-paid work to unskilled or semi-skilled men.

Social changes that liberated affluent White women have had an effect on African Americans analogous to that of whisky on Native Americans.

Sep 25, 2011, 6:32 PM

The Wire didn't lie to us. There is a distinction between selling drugs and using drugs.

Sep 26, 2011, 3:07 AM

People really want to believe there are no differences between blacks and whites in behavior, and even behavior surrounding drug use and sales. Just ain't so. Come into my upper middle class white neighborhood. You feel safe; you are in fact completely safe. Go into the black inner city. You feel endangered; you are in danger. What's the explanation? Why are (upper middle class, white) people relucant to go anywhere near these neighborhoods (in, say, Philadelphia), why would they not dream of letting their kids walk through them? What exactly are they afraid of? Is this all in their heads? Nope. Don't think so. These neighborhoods are full of wanton, predatory thugs. All these liberal muzzy heads (and their confreres, like Stuntz) are in denial.

Sep 29, 2011, 1:12 PM
Aaron Stone:

The disparity is because blacks are more likely to be involved in crimes associated with drug abuse. So, they face a greater incidence of prosecution for drug crimes.

Sep 30, 2011, 3:39 PM

"It should be "afoul." Alas, there are probably more prisons in the country than schools. Pass Obama's Jobs bill!" said the man who did not read the instructions for submitting a comment while be cursed his computer for being too dadgum slow.

Moving on--

Blacks are committing more violent crime per capita than whites and are incarcerated more often per capita than whites. Repeat offenders are the norm, not the anomaly. For how many people is a violent crime their first offense? I cannot find a statistic on that, but anecdotal knowledge tells me that the percentage is low.

Our prisons are breeding hardened criminals. Non-violent and first-time offenders receive longer sentences in high-security prisons than is sensible. They are isolated along with other people serving anywhere from their first to n-th incarceration, becoming farther separated from society by the day. Re-entering society after release is difficult; jobs are hard to come by, the ex-inmate's rights are considerably less, and so on. These circumstances make the probability that one will commit another crime quite high.

It's easy to speculate on why more blacks are caught up in this vicious cycle than whites. Perhaps the difference maker is prejudice by law enforcement or a predisopition towards committing a first offense--that's all to easy to debate. But even a small percentage difference in any factor such as which rarce is more discriminated against or more predisposed toward crime can easily balloon in magnitude over the course of a few generations.

My opinion is this: The poor are more likely to commit crime than the well-to-do. Blacks are poorer than whites. Once in the cycle, the odds of breaking out of that cycle are stacked against the offender. Why are blacks poorer? If you think affirmative action and 150 years removal from impoverished imprisonment are enough to undo that discrepency, you should think again.

Oct 7, 2011, 4:17 PM

The difference in conviction rate is solely only the color of your skin. Factoring in poverty only proves opportunity, not propensity or inclination! For we all are prone to do the wrong things. We all will lie. cheat and still if the right opportunity presents itself. I'm not just refereing to violent crime or crime itself! I'm also refering to situations where self preservation takes presidence! In the days of the me first, selfcentered, self absorbed mentality, situation ethics reign supreme! For the most part there is no absolute! Right and wrong is what is base on how you feel at the time! Hence the reason behind the economic downfall! However; the true reason that the Criminal Justice system in the United States doesn't work is because it is base on a the justice of vengeance and not on the merits of true justice!

Oct 10, 2011, 12:20 PM
Wonks Anonymous:

Unlike Andrew, this piece doesn't mention Maori, but it does include Canada & Australia. It is by Julius Uzoaba and entitled "A Comparative Study of the Incarceration Rates of Racial Minorities in Four Common Law Countries of Canada, US, England and Wales, and Australia".
Unlike Andrew, I don't think this is the result of a skewed criminal justice system. As mentioned above, homicide statistics show that certain neighborhoods really are a lot more dangerous than others.

Nov 2, 2011, 3:26 PM

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