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Crime and race: Yes, let’s look at the stats

| June 1, 2020 6:33 PM

The Press quickly experienced a strong reaction to Sunday’s letter from a reader, titled, “Crime: Look at the stats” claiming “young black men … commit over 50 percent of all violent crime in America,” allegedly according to FBI and Justice Department data.

So let’s start there.

According to the latest-completed “Crime in the United States” report from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics in 2018, of all violent crime arrests by 12,212 law enforcement agencies, 58.7 were of White suspects and 37.4 were Black or African-American.

Getting the “over 50 percent” part reversed may help illustrate why, beyond the tragic story leading to recent protests, there is still such a deep feeling of racial divides in this land of “equal opportunity.” It’s hard to have equal opportunity when we aren’t fully aware of our own biases — in any direction.

Stanford Law grad, New York Times writer and former U.S. Supreme Court law clerk Michelle Alexander wrote a book that transformed my understanding of race in America: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

She opens with the caveat that as a young lawyer, she once didn’t agree with the book’s premise, believing that the Jim Crow days of legalized discrimination were long behind us. Since the advent of anti-discrimination laws, an African-American president and other advances, race was no longer the disadvantage it once was. Economics and poverty are the primary problems, she thought.

Equal opportunity has been realized. Hasn’t it?

What is staggering are the hundreds of other statistics she shares in her meticulously researched book. The tactics may have changed, she writes, but the result persists.

“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it.” — Michelle Alexander

After a historical review from the Founding Fathers to present day, the book focuses on the War on Drugs, sold in the late 1980s to the American public as a reaction to rampant inner city crime and perceived prevalence of crack cocaine, leading to a policy shift and dramatic funding increase to enforce it. But the efforts that led to that campaign and associated laws started earlier, before crack was a widespread problem. In fact, she cites government data indicating both crime and incarceration rates were low when the War on Drugs was conceived.

Nevertheless, police departments got an influx of money and paramilitary equipment for the new War on Drugs. As reported by Spokane’s own Pulitzer Prize-winner Timothy Egan in 1999, paramilitary units called SWAT teams were formed in every major city to fight this new war. Up to that point SWATs had generally been used only in rare emergency situations, not to bust down doors of suspected drug houses.

Since the War on Drugs, our incarceration rates have skyrocketed beyond general population growth. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in three decades the U.S. penal population exploded, from 627,402 incarcerated in state and federal prisons in 1988 to more than 2 million by 2010.

Most were for drug-related offenses, and most non-white. Yet white people use drugs at higher rates.

Please bear with me.

The U.S. now has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the entire world, outpacing oppressive regimes such as China, Russia and Iran. Alexander’s research illustrated that it also has unparalleled racial disparity of incarceration, more even than South Africa at the height of Apartheid.

Innumerable statistics and research in her book, recently updated, include:

According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Hamilton Project reports, African Americans are not, and haven’t ever been, the primary drug users according to race. The percentages of black and white men who use drugs are consistently similar (and both slightly higher than use among Hispanics, who are also incarcerated at higher rates than whites). Among drug dealers, whites consistently outnumber all other races in the U.S.

But arrest, prosecution and incarceration rates of drug offenses — representing the majority of prison populations — do not match those racial lines. DOJ statistics cited in the Hamilton Report indicate African-Americans are 6.5 times more likely to be arrested for such offenses.

Real life is not like “Law & Order.” Few criminal cases get that much attention or even reach trial. Most are resolved by plea bargaining, so discretion — both at the stop-and-arrest phase and the prosecution phase — is central to the result. Do we see a “disadvantaged youth” or a “thug”?

Most people mean well, regardless of race. We all like to see ourselves as unbiased. Most people — whether in the criminal justice system or any other walk of life — try to be fair and kind.

But it’s unrecognized bias that can be the most dangerous.

One very disturbing survey was published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Abuse in the 1990s. Asking respondents to simply close their eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe them, 95 percent of respondents pictured a “black” user. Yet at the time the percentage of drug users in the U.S. who were African-American was 15 percent.

According to a Human Rights Watch multi-state study in 2000, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison were black. Nationwide, black men are still six times more likely to be imprisoned than are white men.

Does that mean skin color is associated with higher offense rates? Consider what HRW also found: Facing the same charge, black offenders were 20 to 57 times more likely to be sent to prison than were white offenders.

Maybe you’re wondering if one group had prior offenses or a different history; both can influence sentencing. Alexander shared multiple examples defying that explanation, such as a massive study by the San Jose Mercury News reviewing 700,000 criminal cases, matching not only crimes but prior histories.

It found that all else being equal, similarly situated white defendants got more favorable plea-bargain results than non-whites.

In another study, among youths who’d never been to prison before, African Americans were more than 600 percent more likely than non-whites to be sentenced, or sentenced more harshly, for identical crimes (Poe, Jones 2000).

These are but a few drops in an ocean of statistical and case evidence of systemic, if not always consciously intentional, bias. Knowing more, it’s hard to see equal opportunity.

We have a long way to go, but all the attention could be helping the tide to turn. Some aspects may have slightly improved in just the last few years, perhaps thanks to growing understanding of the inequality.

In 2018, the total state and federal prison population was down to 1,465,200 (or 431 per 100,000 population) — a 1.6 percent decline from the year before. That included a 28 percent drop in the number of African-Americans imprisoned and a 13 percent drop among whites. Yet even so, the BJS reports that black males remain nearly six times more likely to be imprisoned than white males (and among women, non-whites at twice the rate of whites).

What’s the point of all of this, beyond calling out an incorrect statistic in one reader’s letter?

Understanding. For those of us lucky enough to be in the favorable position of America’s lingering biases (bias being universally human, with no one exempt), it helps to remember that the view — and its precarious positioning — can be very different from another angle.

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Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.