L. Neil Smith's
Number 345, November 13, 2005

"Plant the Spirit of the Rifleman"

The Myth of a Racist Justice System
by Scott Kauzlarich

Special to TLE

When Dewayne Wickham told readers of USA Today that "the scales of justice were out of balance" he was repeating a widely accepted myth: the nation's criminal justice system is rife with racism.

Wickham made his case by comparing arrests and incarceration totals. The figures he cites reveal that whites, despite being arrested twice as much as blacks, make up a smaller number of inmates. This, according to Wickham, is proof of racism.

But is it? Racial disparities do not automatically indicate discrimination; upon closer examination, the case for a racist justice system is not the slam-dunk it appears to be.

Causes of the Prison Gap

One explanation for why blacks have higher incarceration totals would be if that group had a higher re-arrest rate. Are blacks re-offending more than other groups?

David Cole, author of No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System, answers this question by citing research in California that found blacks were more likely to re-offend, and more likely to get a long sentence under the "three-strikes" laws in many states.

According to Cole, in 1996 third-strike defendants in California made up 8% of the prison population. By 2024 that figure should rise to 49%, prompting Cole to report that "Without a change in direction, the already stark racial disparities in our nation's prisons will only get worse."

Another factor is the type of crime committed. A crime committed with a gun, for example, carries a longer sentence than the same crime without a weapon. According to one study, blacks are three times more likely to commit a crime with a gun, and twice as likely to use a knife.

The Drug War also plays a role in the disparity of prison populations since crack cocaine, a drug with higher use in urban areas, carried longer sentences than other drugs. As Cole puts it, "Most criminologists agree that a substantial part-but not all-of sentencing disparity is attributable to blacks committing more serious crimes than whites."

There have been studies done that show knowing the race of the defendant is no help in predicting sentencing; other research indicates that economic factors outweigh race. Even a left-wing professor like Cole admits that there are no studies which conclusively prove that the criminal justice system is intentionally biased, and that statistical studies will probably never prove that.

In the final analysis, prior criminal record, type of crime committed, and other variables account for race disparities more logically than widespread racism.

Scare tactics

There's little question that the justice system in America suffers from a variety of dysfunctions. Intentional race bias is probably not one of them.

Yet this notion has worked its way into all corners of popular society, from simple-minded sitcoms to scholarly academic tomes. And it's here to stay-questioning the conventional wisdom on race issues carries the risk of being labeled a bigot.

In spite of this, we must guard against letting the peddlers of political correctness have a free run. Social irritations are fertile ground for big government, with each perceived injustice serving as an opportunity for authoritarians to lock arms.

Irrational fear is one of the state's great weapons against freedom-it wields hysteria like a whip, herding men into obedience. If the justice system is feared to be racist, well-meaning idiots will reshape it to formally take race into account in an effort to rectify its inequality. A perfectly unequal system will rise and lunacy will rule the day.

Scott Kauzlarich is a professor of Social Studies at Ellsworth College in Iowa Falls, IA


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