Last week, I talked about my thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement. A week before that, I talked about the 1994 crime bill, an op-ed from 2016, and a briefly addressed why I hated the types of comments the subject matter addressed. In particular, I wanted to take the opportunity to broadly address those comments because they are usually written by people who want to highlight who black people are overrepresented in terms of U.S. crime rates.
It is well known that black Americans are arrested more for various crimes despite only accounting for a little over 13% of overall U.S. population (according to the 2010 census). For example, blacks were arrested more for murder and so-called black-on-black crime occurs at a higher relative percentage than white-on-white crime in years where these statistics were tracked. However, this data is also skewed by people who want to support a specific narrative. At the same time, other statistics are largely ignored.
To fully have this discussion, we need to not only look at federal statistics, but look at the following:
- Incarceration and conviction rates.
- The School-to-Prison Pipeline (including uneven punishments and convictions for minority youths).
- The effects of poverty on U.S. crime rates, and;
- As a bonus, “Officer-involved” shootings.
This should give us more of a complete picture of what is going on and give no one an excuse to avoid an open and honest debate. However, more needs to be said about institutional problems in the American justice system.
National Statistics: Arrests
While researching crime statistics for this post, I wanted to see racial breakdowns, but the information was limited. Much of the pertinent data kept by the FBI through its Uniform Crime Reporting program only included statistics from 2013. I also found stats for 2015.
2013 Crime Statistics
In 2013, blacks accounted for 28.3 percent of arrests and whites accounted for 68.9% of all arrests. Among adults, blacks accounted for 27.6% of all arrests and whites accounted for 69.6% all arrests from that group. For juveniles (people under the age of 18) blacks accounted for 34.4% of all arrests and whites accounted for 63.0% of all arrests.
White arrestees accounted for more apprehensions for violent crimes (58.4%) than any other racial group and white juveniles accounted for 54.4% of all arrests for aggravated assault. At the same time, 52.1% of all adults arrested for murder were black and 45.5% were white. And black juveniles accounted for 53.3% of all juvenile arrests for violent crimes.
White juveniles led in arrests for property crimes (59.7%) and drug abuse violations (73.0%).
2015 Crime Statistics
What interested me the most were the data concerning crimes where the race of the perpetrators and victims were known, including what is known about “black-on-black” crime. As some people (including Donald Trump) would have other believe, blacks not only lead this category but account for my white murders than any other group.
Now, I was able to find some statistics from 2015 and these are some of the takeaways:
- In 2015, the share of black-on-black murders fell to 89.3%, marking the first time this century those murders accounted for less than 90% of all black murders.
- The share of murders involving one white perpetrator and one white victim fell to 81.3% although the total number of those murders rose from 2014’s total.
- Interracial killings increased in comparison to 2014 totals. In 2015, black-on-white killings totaled 500, a 12% increase from 2014’s total of 446. White-on-black killings rose 22% from 187 to 229.
Special Note: In 2016, the number of regular homicides topped 16,000, an increase from 2015. I have yet to see a demographic breakdown for 2016.
What FBI Statistics Won’t Tell You
The FBI statistics I’m looking at are severely limited in the scheme of things.
For one thing, many crimes are not reported, so that will skew the results.
Also, the statistics do no account for cases where more than one person was involved in a murder or when more than one victim is killed, thus eliminating 17% of all murders annually. All told, the data I’m focusing on excludes up to 61% of all murders. There were 15,696 known homicides in 2015 and murders were the race of the perpetrator and victim was known accounted for 6,000 of those murders.
Additionally, the FBI crime statistics only account for arrests. More information is needed about conviction rates, and how those rates are broken down, based on race and region.
For example, black and white Americans generally sell and consume drugs at similar rates, but blacks face more arrests.
Here’s another example: After a 2014 study of Ferguson, MO, the Justice Department found that blacks were underrepresented in the police force there but overrepresented when counting arrests. In many cases, African-Americans who were just passing through Ferguson were more likely to be arrested despite more whites being in possession of drugs. The study also found corruption and racist attitudes abounding in that police department.
The Scope of Incarceration in the United States
One of the first places I went to was the Prison Policy website. There, I was able to look at a few pages regarding incarceration rates in the United States and racial breakdowns.
Since 2014, Peter Wagner and Rabuy have worked on a report in the hopes of restarting the discussion about American incarceration rates. By painting “the whole pie,” they also hope to steer the conversation toward rethinking the way we do “justice” in the United States. The report has since been updated for 2017.
Stats from the 2017 Updated Report:
- More than 2.3 million people are being held in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, 76 Indian Country jails, military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in U.S. territories.
- Each year, 641,000 people are released from prisons and jails. However, there are over 11 million instances of people going to jail each year.
- Most people who go to jail are not convicted. Only 187,000 people on any given day are convicted, but most of them will only serve time for misdemeanors, which normally require sentences that last less than a year. Over 6,000 are kept in prison despite legal requirements for their release.
- About 16,000 people were in federal prisons due to violating federal immigration laws. Another 41,000 people were being detained for violating immigration laws. Those people were held in federally-run facilities, privately-run facilities, and local jails that have been contracted by ICE.
- About 840,000 people were out on parole and a “staggering” 3.7 million people were put on probation.
Additionally, there are vast racial disparities in incarceration and conviction rates. In each state, Blacks were overrepresented. And part of the picture is seeing how black youths are handled by authorities.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the “school-to-prison” pipeline is a practice by which “children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” Black and Latino children are especially vulnerable to the practice, although many of them may be suffering due to poverty, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems that should be handled by school officials.
For starters, children of color are often suspended, even for small infractions. Suspensions remove children from instruction.
Some minors are expelled for multiple infractions. In some cases, the expulsions might be by design to improve average test scores. When minors are expelled in some states, they may have no recourse and become dropouts.
In other cases, minors are arrested by cops who are already on campus or called in to deal with “problem” children. This is more likely to happen to children of color.
The transfer of children to detention centers and incidents with law enforcement have increased for a couple of reasons. One factor is the enforcement of “zero tolerance” policies, even for minor infractions against school policies. The second and most important factor is the increase of police presence, even in elementary schools.
Once children are “criminalized,” children of color especially face inequality in the justice system. This is normally the start of a vicious cycle of institutional discrimination that ruins young lives, breaks up families, and endangers entire communities.
Uneven Punishment in Schools
In November 2014, I first read about a story involving Bernadeia Johnson. At the time, she was the Superintendent of schools in Minneapolis and she was introducing reforms to close the achievement gap in the schools she oversaw. Among the new initiatives she introduced was a program to review all suspensions of children of color and to reduce the police presence at the school.
When Johnson announced her review program, black children were 10 times more likely to be suspended than white children. Johnson said that overall, black kids were being punished more often and receiving harsher punishment than white kids, despite doing no more harm. She also said the disparities started in kindergarten an fed into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Johnson provided two anecdotes of uneven punishment: one where a white child who vandalized school property was just admonished and one where two black boys, who were friends, were suspended after fighting.
Now, there are some people who would argue that people are more important than property, but I have two questions:
- What would happen if the student who vandalized the property in much the same manner as the white kid?
- What would happen if two white boys, who were friends, were suspended?
In these scenarios, the black and white kids all have clean records before the incidents. If the black kids received harsher punishments, that serves to prove Johnson’s point.
Additionally, across the country, there are more trends to show that black children are being punished more harshly. For instance, a study in Washington Middle Seattle found that black children were 4 times more likely to be suspended than white children, despite their being comparable populations of black and white students. And often, the black children were being punished for light infractions, like rule-breaking.
Racial Inequality in Youth Sentencing
Numerous studies have also shown that there is uneven punishment when Black and Hispanic youths are arrested. For example:
In its New Jersey study, the WNYC Data News Team looked at records from July 1, 2001 to May 19, 2016 made available by the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. The following information comes from the graphic with the heading “Minors Prosecuted as Adults in New Jersey.”
In the past 5 years, prosecutors in NJ asked to try 1,251 minors as adults. 87.9% were Black or Hispanic. Of the 1,251 requests, 692 were granted. 87.4% are Black or Hispanic. If found guilty, these minors serve their sentences in adult prisons.
Of the 1,251 requests from prosecutors to treat offending minors, 849 of those minors were for Black minors, 247 were for Hispanic minors, 139 were for Caucasian minors, 5 were for Asian minors, 1 was a Native American minors, and another 10 were for minors of unknown ethnicity.
Of the requests that were granted, 460 were for the Black minors, 145 were for Hispanic minors, 76 were for Caucasian minors, 3 were for Asian minors, and 7 were for the minors of unknown ethnicity. The lone Native American was tried as an adult.
In Camden County, NJ, 68% of black, 60% of Hispanic, and 31% of Caucasian minors were tried as adults when prosecutions requested that.
In Passaic County, NJ, 78% of black, 29% of Hispanic, and 38% of Caucasian minors were tried as adults when prosecutions requested that.
In Cumberland County, NJ, 45% of black, 20% of Hispanic, and 17% of white minors were tried as adults when prosecuted requested that.
The Effects of Poverty on U.S. Crime Rates
Poverty is often seen as a self-perpetuating cycle, but it often begins where opportunities are denied or communities are depressed and oppressed.
In oppressed areas, residents are often denied good educations, decent housing, fair loans, and jobs. These factors have contributed to the racial wealth gap in the United States and have persistently put black families at a disadvantage.
As generations of families grow up in poverty their choices are often limited to a few undesirable ones, including:
- Partaking of welfare services, if available.
- Taking low-skill, low-wage jobs, which might be dangerous.
- Turning to crime.
The crime and poverty are often concentrated in geographical areas. In poor areas, there are spikes in property crimes (including armed robbery) and arrests for drug possession due to the War on Drugs. In more depressed areas, there are spikes in riots and murder, especially where racial inequalities are more pronounced.
Bonus: ‘Officer-Involved’ Shootings
From 2015-2016, The Washington Post looked at the number of fatalities from “officer-involved” shootings, or shootings in which a police officer shoots someone. In 2015, police officers in the United States had killed 991 people; that number dropped to 957 a year later. PBS NewsHour estimated that while more white people were killed by cops each year, black men were 3 times more likely to be killed by cops each year.
While speaking with PBS NewsHour’s Alison Stewart, the Post’s Kimbriell Kelly was asked about two striking facts connected to the studies. For one thing, The Washington Post reported twice the number of fatalities than did the FBI for 2015 and 2016. Secondly, the number of unarmed people killed by the police fell from 9% to 5%. Most of the people shot were reportedly carrying guns and knives.
Despite that last bit of information, Kelly held that better training was needed for police officers. She mentioned de-escalation techniques and the pilot program happening in New Orleans. She said the officers involved in discussing the fatalities believe better training could prevent between 300 and 400 fatalities a year.
Now having said that, most critics believe that those carrying weapons likely deserved to get killed, but activists argue similar points to Kelly. Many people think that officer involved shootings are just a natural extension of police brutality and poor training. I think the recent Philando Castille case illustrates that.
Philando Castille was shot although he did everything he was told to do. The officer who shot him was suddenly fearful when Castille announced he had a gun, but did not reach for it. The cop was just acquitted this month because he “feared for his life.” (And the NRA said nothing …)
The Persistence of Racial Narratives
Many people who are told these things tend to brush them off because they run counter to their narratives. Now, this is not me making excuses for actual criminals, but I am pointing out the glaring problems in the American justice system.
Not everyone who is arrested is guilty and not every guilty person is arrested and no one is prone to crime due to their race. But there are clear racial biases which immediately put millions of kids at a disadvantage. These disadvantages often factor in arrests and fatalities where cops are involved.
Regardless, this tends to fall on deaf ears. Next week, I’m going to talk about why this is and why it’s so hard to talk about race.