Racial Disparity and the Cycle of Enduring Disadvantage

In his reply to me, John Lott’s discussion of racial disparity points to several points of agreement, and perhaps one fundamental disagreement. Lott discounts studies of racial disparity of the kind that James Q. Wilson and I rely on in our discussions. The basic facts, however, are not disputed: The racial disparity unattributable to measures of crime grew from 20 percent in 1979 to 40 percent in 2009.

Lott indicates three factors which could account for the unexplained gap: (1) “racism in the criminal justice system” which he, oddly, attributes to me, (2) blacks are punished more severely than whites for the same crimes because they have more prior arrests, and (3) within broad offense categories, blacks commit crimes that are punished more severely.

Lott misses the key point, however. To account for the doubling of the unexplained racial gap in imprisonment, something about these factors must have changed. Maybe the racial gap in prior arrests has increased, maybe “racism in the criminal justice system” has increased. I’m not sure what Lott’s theory is here.

There are many other reasons why the unexplained racial disparity in imprisonment may have grown in addition to the three reasons that Lott considers. The criminal law has changed, proliferating aggravating factors in urban areas (e.g., proximity to schools), introducing new public order offenses, providing mandatory prison sentences for drug and other offenses, lengthening sentences for serious violence, and adding sentence enhancements for repeat offenders. All these changes disparately affect African Americans. Blacks with little schooling have also become worse off relative to whites. Young, low-education, black men now have relatively lower employment rates and fewer family supports than in the late 1970s. A good job and supportive family favorably influence decisions about pretrial incarceration, sentencing, parole release, and revocation. Thus, deepening social disadvantage translates into more prison time.

There’s also a larger context that’s missing. The drug arrest rate for blacks skyrocketed through the 1980s then remained at a relatively high level, while the drug arrest rate for whites increased only a little.  This surely did produce a large pool of black men with an arrest and felony history, liable for imprisonment and sentence enhancements. Here, I think, Lott and I may agree. However, the driver of narcotics arrest rates in the 1980s was not crime, but a clear change in the policy — the war on drugs.

To pick up the Loury-Wilson thread, our most fundamental disagreement concerns the underlying assumption that racial inequality in incarceration would be justified by racial differences in criminal offending. I disagree, because the negative effects of incarceration threaten public safety and perpetuate social inequality. The massive investment in imprisonment, focused on poor African American communities has not served those communities well. Despite massive correctional expenditures, the urban poor — disparately African American and poorly educated — have neither greatly diminished in number nor moved closer to the social mainstream. Spending less on prisons, and more on early-child programs, as Wilson suggests, is a good step. Still, the adult men that fill the prisons are parents too, and they cannot be left out of the equation as we try to break the cycle of enduring disadvantage.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Brown University’s Glenn Loury, author of Race, Incarceration, and American Values, points out that the United States imprisons more of its population than any country on the planet. America’s incaceration policies, Loury observes, fall disproportionately on black men. Loury is disturbed that we seem rarely to consider whether these policies make sense. He argues that they do not make sense, but that “the racially disparate incidence of punishment in the United States is a morally troubling residual effect of the nation’s history of enslavement, disenfranchisement, segregation, and discrimination.” Loury contends that the American ethos of individual responsibility has largely blinded us to the fact that “society at large is implicated in [the criminal’s] choices because we have acquiesced in structural arrangements which work to our benefit and his detriment.” Loury concludes: “What the brutal facts about punishment in today’s America show is that [the] American project of civic inclusion remains incomplete.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply to this month’s lead essay, the University of Maryland’s John R. Lott, Jr. criticizes Loury for a selective presentation of facts about race and the American criminal justice system. Lott points out that blacks are the primary victims of crimes committed by other blacks. “If we punish black criminals a lot, isn’t it possible that the reason we are doing it is because we care about the black victims?” he asks. Lott argues that while the United States does have the world’s highest rates of incarceration, the evidence shows that the policies behind this fact have been effective in deterring crime. Additionally, Lott maintains that there is little evidence that other criminal penalties disproportionately burden blacks or the poor, and that well-intended policies meant to bring more blacks into law enforcement have actually increased crime rates in minority areas by lowering the average quality of new police recruits of all backgrounds.

  • James Q. Wilson sympathizes with Glenn Loury’s “impassioned cry from the heart,” yet ultimately finds that it comes up short in substance. A more programmatic approach is in order, he argues. Although imprisonment has costs, it also has benefits, including decreased risk from several types of crimes. Yet programs that attempt to reduce criminality and recidivism must start outside the penal system and address broken families, neighborhoods, and educational systems.

  • Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, author of Punishment and Inequality in America argues that although the growth of mass imprisonment in recent years has caused a modest reduction in crime, this reduction may not have been worth the costs. Not only did we spend billions on new prisons, we interrupted millions of lives and families. We lost the economic output of prisoners and alienated them from society at large. We further ran the risk of recidivism, because past imprisonment is strongly associated with future crime. Western characterizes the public safety provided by mass imprisonment as “short-term, expensive, and vulnerable to reversal.” Worse, there are other ways to reduce crime that do not rely on imprisonment. Today’s state legislators and governors are no longer as invested in the prison system and do not see more prisons as the solution to social ills, and this, to him, is a welcome development.