(1) Looking through the Washington Post data on police shootings, a few things jump out.
Police killings are quite rare in the US. Since 2015, according to the Washington Post, 2,490 people have been killed by the police. 7% of these, 174, have been unarmed. Out of that 174, 65 were black, 67 white and 35 Hispanic. Out of the entirety of police shootings, armed or unarmed, 27% were black, 18% Hispanic, 52% white. There’s no breakdown by income, though geographically a significant proportion of the shootings(32%) occurred in three states, California, Florida and Texas
The core failing of the Standard Story is that it consistently puts the spotlight on statistics and events that are shocking but, in the grand scheme of things, not truly important for solving the problems we face. As a result, it gives too little attention to the more mundane-sounding yet far more influential causes of prison growth. For example, a core claim of the Story, made perhaps most forcefully by Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-Blindness, is that our decision to lock up innumerable low-level drug offenders through the “war on drugs” is primarily responsible for driving up our prison populations. In reality, only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges—and very few of them, perhaps only around 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent. At the same time, more than half of all people in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime. A strategy based on decriminalizing drugs will thus disappoint—and disappoint significantly. Yet we see little to no efforts to reform the treatment of people convicted of violent crimes. The Standard Story also argues that increasingly long prison sentences have driven growth, and thus that cutting back sentences would effectively cut prison populations.. The far more significant change, as I will explain more fully throughout this book, is the increased rate at which people get sent to prison in the first place. The primary driver of incarceration is increased prosecutorial toughness when it comes to charging people, not longer sentences. Stopping prosecutors from sending people to prison to start with would be far more effective in cutting incarceration rates than reducing the amount of time prisoners spend in prison once they get there—and this fact points to a very different set of reforms than those generally proposed.
There’s evidence of bias in sentencing between whites and African Americans, but the disproportionate incarceration rate is driven by the fact that African Americans commit more serious crimes, more often:
Despite the persistent statistical and measurement obstacles noted by the NRC, Baumer, and other experts, we still know more than we think we know today about racial disparities in punishment. We now know that the significance of racial bias and race of the defendant in fostering sentencing disparities was grossly overstated, especially for serious and violent crimes. Comprehensive reviews of the research on racial disparities in sentencing have found that race of the defendant has only a relatively weak influence on sentence length. As for the decision on whether to sentence someone to prison or impose an alternative sanction, the defendant’s race has a significant but relatively modest effect overall and is highly variable across studies. We also know that race effects are highly contingent on many other factors, including age, gender, socioeconomic and employment status, quality of legal representation, offense type, criminal record, and jurisdictional location. We now have a more subtle understanding of how racial discrimination and bias operate in the criminal justice system. Recent research strongly suggests that the flagrant Scottsboro-type discrimination is not a primary driver of racial disparities in criminal justice outcomes. Rather, it appears that a little bias can still go a long way in a system that has many decision-makers—police who must decide whether to make an arrest or not; prosecutors who determine whether to dismiss the case, what to charge, and what plea bargains to seek; and judges who determine bail and sanctions.
Although the persistence of racial biases and discrimination in the criminal justice system is deeply troubling, we now know these are not the only reasons why African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated. Two other key factors are that blacks disproportionately commit the types of crimes that usually draw a long prison sentence, and that the sentences and time served for those offenses have escalated since the 1970s. Cassia Spohn concludes that the evidence is “irrefutable” that seriousness of the offense and the offender’s prior record are the primary determinants of who goes to prison and for how long.
(3) Read Rajiv Sethi respond to Roland Fryers paper that argues:
Given the stream of video “evidence”, which many take to be indicative of structural racism in police departments across America, the ensuing and understandable outrage in black communities across America, and the results from our previous analysis of non-lethal uses of force, the results displayed in Table 5 are startling… Blacks are 23.8 percent less likely to be shot by police, relative to whites.
I think three things seem to be true. (1) There’s evidence of discrimination and bias against African Americans, to varying degrees of importance, across all socio-economic levels in the US. (2) Low income African Americans face numerous structural barriers to education and employment that seriously undermine any possibility of social mobility, and incentivise criminal behaviour . (3) The public debate on racism in the criminal justice system is mostly wrongheaded.