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October 10, 2007

Another strong piece about race and justice

Writing in the National Journal, Stuart Taylor has this effective piece entitled "Criminal Injustice And Race."  Here are some highlights:

[T]he heart of the racial injustice in our penal system is the grossly excessive punishment of hundreds of thousands of nonviolent, disproportionately black offenders whose long prison terms ruin countless lives and turn many who could have become productive citizens into career criminals.

The Supreme Court heard two cases on October 2 that focus on a relatively small piece of this problem: how much discretion federal district judges have to depart from federal sentencing guidelines that provide savagely severe prison terms for small-time drug offenders, among others. The most savage penalties of all are for people -- overwhelmingly, black people -- caught with fairly small amounts of crack cocaine.

But the justices, hemmed in by wrongheaded mandatory sentencing laws, are merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, no matter how they rule. Nothing that the Court will ever do could make much of a dent in the overly punitive regime that has sent the number of prisoners in this country soaring to 2.2 million, more than in any other nation.  This represents more than a sixfold increase in the number of incarcerated Americans since 1970, when it was 330,000. More than 40 percent of these prisoners are black. And according to a recent study by the nonprofit Sentencing Project, 500,000 of the 2.2 million are locked up for drug crimes, and a majority of the convicted drug prisoners have no history of violence or high-level drug-selling....

Our penal system visits these dire consequences on a staggeringly high percentage of the African-American population. More than 22 percent of all black men in their early 30s and more than half of the subset who dropped out of high school have spent time behind bars. These percentages are far higher than they were during the worst era of American apartheid.

Is this situation the fault of white racism? Well, the main reason that an overly punitive system has such a severe effect on black men is that they commit hugely disproportionate numbers of crimes. As The Economist points out, "Young black men are seven times more likely to be jailed than whites, but they are also seven times more likely to murder someone, and their victims are usually black." The absurdly excessive penalties for possessing or selling crack cocaine could be seen as evidence that many white voters and legislators are subconsciously more willing to throw away the lives of small-time black offenders than small-time white offenders.  You can call that racism, but only by stretching the word....

In short, focusing mainly on the residue of racism is a distraction from the far bigger problem of over-punishment. It is also a distraction from understanding why African-American crime rates are so high.

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October 10, 2007 at 09:17 AM | Permalink


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I agree that the guidelines need to changed and that our drug policy doesn't work. But when I read: "long prison terms ruin countless lives and turn many who could have become productive citizens into career criminals" I just can't give the author any credibility.

Exactly how does long prison sentences cause someone to become a career criminal?

What evidence is there that if prison sentences were shorter these folks would become productive citizens?

And what about the long established fact that the best predictor of future behavior if past behavior?

Posted by: | Oct 10, 2007 11:44:07 AM

Short prison sentences usually have the same deterrent effect as long term sentences in regards to first time offenders. Do you believe the harsh sentencing regimes should apply to first time offenders who have had no prior experience with the criminal justice system?

Posted by: Anonymous | Oct 10, 2007 1:14:40 PM

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