Criminality, Race and Social Factors
Criminality, Race and Social Factors
In 1918 the Bureau of the Census reported that blacks, who made up only 11 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 22 percent of the inmates of prisons, jails, and reform schools (U.S. Department of Commerce 1918, p. 438). The authors of the report acknowledged that these figures “will probably be generally accepted as indicating that there is more criminality and lawbreaking among Negroes than among whites,” and they stated that this conclusion “is probably justified by the facts.” The authors then posed a question that would spark debate and generate controversy for years to come. They asked whether the difference “may not be to some extent the result of discrimination in the treatment of white and Negro offenders on the part of the community and the courts.”
This question is still being asked in the twenty-first century. As the proportion of the jail and prison population that is African American approaches 50 percent (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005), social scientists and legal scholars continue to ask whether, and to what extent, racial discrimination infects the criminal justice system. Although most scholars believe that the overrepresentation of African Americans in arrest and incarceration statistics results primarily from the disproportionate involvement of African Americans in serious crime, most also acknowledge that discrimination plays an important role. Michael Tonry, a professor in criminal law at the University of Minnesota Law School, contends that the war on crime, and particularly the war on drugs, “has caused the ever harsher treatment of blacks by the criminal justice system” (Tonry 1995, p. 52). Like Tonry, most scholars concede that the overrepresentation of African Americans in the criminal justice system results “to some extent” from discrimination against racial minorities and the poor.
For many people, the word crime evokes an image of a young, African American male who carries a weapon and murders, rapes, robs, or assaults someone of another race. These perceptions, which are fueled by the attention the media, politicians, and criminal justice policymakers give to street crimes such as murder and rape, are inaccurate. The typical crime is in fact not a violent crime; the typical criminal offender—that is, the offender who appears most often in arrest statistics—is not African American; and most crimes are intraracial rather than interracial. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports, in 2004 there were ten times as many property crimes as violent crimes reported to the police. In addition, whites made up 61 percent of those arrested for violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault), 69 percent of those arrested for property crimes (burglary, larceny-theft, auto theft, and arson), and 66 percent of those arrested for drug abuse violations. Although data on the race of the offender and the race of the victim are more difficult to come by, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that from 1976 to 2002, 86 percent of white homicide victims were killed by whites, while 94 percent of African-American homicide victims were killed by African Americans.
Using the term typical offender in discussing race and crime is somewhat misleading. First, African Americans make up more than half of all arrests for two particular violent crimes—murder (including nonnegligent manslaughter) and robbery. For these offenses, in other words, the typical offender is African American. Second, although it is true that most of those arrested in the United States are white, the percentage of African Americans arrested for most crimes is disproportionate to their percentage in the population. In 2004, African Americans made up approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they accounted for 54 percent of those arrested for robbery, 53 percent of those arrested for murder and manslaughter, 37 percent of those arrested for rape, and 36 percent of those arrested for aggravated assault. For these violent crimes, African Americans were overrepresented (and whites were underrepresented) in arrest statistics. African Americans also were overrepresented in arrests for property crimes (29.4% of all arrests) and drug abuse violations (36.5% of all arrests). In fact, the only crimes for which whites were overrepresented in arrest statistics were driving under the influence (88% of all arrests), liquor law violations (84.8% of all arrests), and drunkenness (83.3% of all arrests). These racial differences are found for both juveniles and adults.
Criminologists have conducted dozens of studies designed to explain the overrepresentation of African Americans in crime statistics. Although many scholars contend that at least some of this overrepresentation can be attributed to racial profiling (that is, the tendency of police and other criminal justice officials to use race as an indicator of an increased likelihood of involvement in crime) and discrimination in the decision to arrest or not, most acknowledge that racial disparities in arrest statistics do reflect racial differences in criminal involvement.
Explanations for the relationship between race and crime generally focus on the effects of economic inequality, community social disorganization, residential segregation, individual- and family-level risk factors, weakened family attachments, weak bonds to school and work, and involvement with delinquent peers and gangs. According to these interrelated perspectives, the higher rates of crime—and particularly the higher rates of violent crime (that is, the number arrested per 1,000 population)—for African Americans than for whites reflect the fact that African Americans are more likely than whites to be poor, to be unemployed or underemployed, and to live in drug-and gang-ridden communities with high rates of family disruption and social disorganization. African Americans, in other words, have higher rates of crime than whites because of the very different economic, social, and cultural situations in which they often live. As Robert Sampson and William Julius Wilson put it, “the most important determinant of the relationship between race and crime is the differential distribution of blacks in communities characterized by (1) structural social disorganization and (2) cultural social isolation, both of which stem from the concentration of poverty, family disruption, and residential instability” (Sampson and Wilson 2005, p. 182).
There is irrefutable evidence that racial minorities comprise a disproportionate share of the U.S. prison population. At the end of 2004, there were 1.3 million persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons; 41 percent of these inmates were African American, 34 percent were white, and 19 percent were Hispanic (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005). The disparities are even more dramatic for males, and particularly for males in their twenties and thirties. The incarceration rates for African-American males in these age groups are seven to eight times higher than the rates for white males, and two-and-a-half to three times higher than the rates for Hispanic males. When these rates are expressed as percentages, they reveal that 8.4 percent of all African-American males age twenty-five to twenty-nine were in prison in 2004, compared to 2.5 percent of Hispanic males and 1.2 percent of white males in this age group. Although the absolute numbers are much smaller, the pattern for females is similar. The incarceration rate for African-American females was more than twice the rate for Hispanic females and four times the rate for white females.
Other statistics confirm that racial minorities face a disproportionately high risk of incarceration. In 2000, substantially more African Americans were under some form of correctional supervision (jail, prison, probation, and parole) than were enrolled in college. Among whites, the situation was just the opposite. In fact, there were more than twice as many whites in college as there were under correctional supervision (Walker, Spohn, and DeLone 2004, p. 297). There also are significant racial and ethnic differences in the lifetime likelihood of imprisonment. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2003), an African-American boy born in 2001 faced a 32 percent chance of being imprisoned at some
point in his life, compared to a 17 percent likelihood for a Hispanic boy and a 6 percent likelihood for a white boy.
The crimes for which racial minorities and whites are imprisoned also differ. Although the proportions held in state prisons in 2002 for violent offenses were similar, African Americans and Hispanics were much more likely than whites to be imprisoned for drug offenses. Twenty-seven percent of the Hispanics and 25 percent of the African Americans were imprisoned for drug offenses, compared to only 15 percent of the whites (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2005). Drug offenses also constituted a larger share of the growth in state prison inmates for racial minorities than for whites. From 1990 to 1998, increases in drug offenders accounted for 25 percent of the total growth among African-American inmates, 18 percent of the growth among Hispanic inmates, and 12 percent of the growth among white inmates (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2000).
As all of these statistics indicate, African Americans and Hispanics (particularly African-American and Hispanic males) are substantially more likely than whites to be locked up in U.S. prisons. These statistics suggest that state and federal judges sentence a disproportionately high number of racial minorities to prison, or that racial minorities are sentenced to serve longer terms than whites (or both). The question, of course, is why this occurs.
Researchers have used a variety of strategies to determine whether, and to what extent, the disparities in imprisonment reflect differential involvement in crime or differential treatment by the criminal justice system. The most frequently cited work compares the racial disparity in arrest rates for serious crimes to the racial disparity in incarceration rates for these crimes. According to Alfred Blumstein, a professor of public policy at Carnegie-Mellon University, if there is no discrimination following arrest, then “one would expect to find the racial distribution of prisoners who were sentenced for any particular crime type to be the same as the racial distribution of persons arrested for that crime” (1982, p. 1264). If, for example, 60 percent of those arrested for robbery are black and 60 percent of those incarcerated for robbery are black, one could conclude (assuming no bias in the decision to arrest or not) that the disproportionate number of blacks imprisoned for robbery reflected differential involvement in robbery by blacks.
To determine the overall portion of the racial disproportionality in prison populations that could be attributed to differential involvement in crime, Blumstein calculated the proportion of the prison population that, based on arrest rates, was expected to be black for twelve separate violent, property, and drug offenses. He then compared these expected rates to the actual rates of incarceration for blacks. Using 1979 data, he found that 80 percent of the racial disproportionality in incarceration rates could be attributed to racial differences in arrest rates. He reached a similar conclusion when he replicated the analysis using 1991 data, finding that 76 percent of the racial disproportionality in incarceration rates was accounted for by racial differences in arrest rates. Blumstein stresses that these results do not mean that racial discrimination does not exist. He notes that “there are too many anecdotal reports of such discrimination to dismiss that possibility.” Rather, his findings imply that “the bulk of the racial disproportionality in prison is attributable to differential involvement in arrest, and probably in crime, in those most serious offenses that tend to lead to imprisonment” (1993, pp. 750–751).
Blumstein’s conclusion that from 76 to 80 percent of the racial disproportionality in imprisonment can be explained by racial differences in arrest rates does not apply to each of the crimes he examined. There was a fairly close fit between the percentage of African Americans in prison and the percentage of African Americans arrested for homicide, robbery, and (to a lesser extent) burglary. For drug offenses, however, African Americans were overrepresented in prison by nearly 50 percent. This figure probably exaggerates the degree to which racial differences in imprisonment for drug offenses reflect racial differences in involvement in drug crimes. This is because arrests for drug offenses are not a particularly good proxy for offending. If, as critics suggest, police target African-American neighborhoods where drug dealing is more visible, and where it is therefore easier to make arrests, statistics on the race of those arrested for drug offenses will overestimate offending rates for African Americans. Coupled with the fact that drug offenders make up an increasingly large share of the prison population, this means that a declining proportion of the overall racial disparity in imprisonment can be explained by higher rates of arrests for African Americans.
Blumstein, Alfred. 1982. “On the Racial Disproportionality of United States’ Prison Populations.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 73: 1259–1281.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2003. Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974–2001. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Available from http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/piusp01.htm.
———. 2005. Prisoners in 2004. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice. Available from http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/.
Mauer, Marc. 1999. Race to Incarcerate. New York: The New Press.
Sampson, Robert J., and William Julius Wilson. 2005. “Toward a Theory of Race, Crime, and Urban Inequality.” In Race, Crime, and Justice, edited by Shaun L. Gabbidon and Helen Taylor Greene. New York: Routledge.
Tonry, Michael. 1995. Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.
United States Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. 1918. Negro Population: 1790–1915. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
Walker, Samuel, Cassia Spohn, and Miriam DeLone. 2004. The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America, 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson.