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There’s more than racism behind crime rates

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Oct. 27, 2010 at 7:44 pm with 7 Comments »
October 27, 2010 5:47 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Washington Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders got himself in trouble – what else is new? – for asserting last week that blacks wind up in state prison at higher rates because they commit crimes at higher rates.

Predictably, he got slammed from all directions. He’s clearly guilty of insensitivity: That was an absurdly simplistic summary of an extremely complex problem. Still, his comments ought to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

The state’s black population is roughly 4 percent. Its prison population is roughly 20 percent. That disparity should appall anyone. But Sanders was right in one respect: Attributing the gap exclusively to racism won’t help solve the specific problems that perpetuate it.

Racism created many of the difficulties some minorities continue to struggle with. African Americans – who, with American Indians, suffered the worst of it – endured more than two centuries of slavery and another century of legal subjugation.

No group could survive a crucible like that without scars and disadvantages. Though most American blacks have since clawed their way into the middle class, far too many remain in poverty.
But if racism provides the overall context, more specific circumstances explain much of the disparity in arrests, convictions and imprisonment.

Crimes of violence and theft tend to be higher among the poor. That pattern prevailed among other ethnic groups – like the early Irish immigrants – and it prevails among many today. Control for poverty – by comparing middle class to middle class, for example – and the fivefold imprisonment disparity would shrink.

Poverty must be broken out of the equation and addressed in its own terms. One byproduct of poverty, for example, is inadequate legal representation in the justice system. That’s not a racial problem per se – it’s a matter of investing more in criminal defense.

A broader remedy would be attracting employers and payrolls to economically distressed neighborhoods. Racism can be a factor here, but it’s not coming from police or prosecutors; some companies are reluctant to locate in areas heavily populated by minorities. That’s another problem that must be broken out and fixed.

Other factors include poor schools, absentee fathers and a catastrophic dropout rate among African Americans – and Latinos, for that matter.

Those all contribute to higher crime rates. Neither blacks nor any other race are inherently more prone to crime; any group in the same circumstances would show similar signs of distress. But fixes to the criminal justice system, necessary as they may be, can only chip away at the margins of the problem.

Pretending that there isn’t a higher crime rate – pretending, say, that comfortable whites are as prone to theft as desperately poor blacks – doesn’t help at all.

Leave a comment Comments → 7
  1. hortonpeak says:

    I agree. But is the ultimate question not about the relative crime rates. But, the preconceived notions of whom is guilty or not guilty. I for one think that Justice Sanders brings a preconceived notion of guilt to the court from the start. I would hope someone who sits on the highest court in the state has already worked out those notions. In the case of Justice Sanders I think he is trying to sort them out while sitting on the court. That is not the place to sort it out. Replace him. Cheers.

  2. omega629 says:

    Well if Blacks only make up 20% of the criminals, shouldnt we really be focusing on the whites??? Sounds like they need more help than blacks. How much longer are we going to make excuses for people?

  3. hortonpeak, are you serious? Sanders has spent his entire time on the Supreme Court being attacked for being too concerned with the rights of criminals. Sanders has written more dissents that probably any justice ever and a large number of them are civil rights based.

    Preconceived bias? If there is, it’s a bias in favor of the constitution. (which includes freedom of speech, even for judges)

  4. Concernedfather says:

    Since there is no “like” button here, I have to say pgroup is spot on.

    In the same respect I would click on the “dislike” button for the first two posts.

  5. hortonpeak says:

    I stand by my comments. My point is that those who sit at the top of the state and federal justice systems must have sorted their individual problems out prior to joining the court. At the state level this is dependent on the electorate at the federal level this is dependent on truthful testimony before senate committees. In both cases we the people are having to deal with justices who have quite not figured that out. In the case of the state, although I am not sure it is right, we can tell folks who have not figured it out to come back later. Of course, this implies, the replacement is any better. But, I for one am willing to take the chance. As for the federal level, with life tenure, I rest my case.

  6. nonstopjoe says:

    The next-to-last paragraph contains an unproven assertion – that “neither blacks nor any other race are inherently more prone to crime.” If that be the case, perhaps a quota system for criminal penalties should be explored – i.e., jail populations of various races should reflect general population percentages.

  7. hortonpeak says:

    Had this editorial been published without the need to include Justice Sanders I would have agreed. But,

    He’s clearly guilty of insensitivity: That was an absurdly simplistic summary of an extremely complex problem. Still, his comments ought to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

    Read more:’s-more-than-racism-behind-crime-rates/#comments#ixzz13imowTW.

    Does Justice Sander’s simplistic comments reflect his decisions? I do not want simplistic comments from someone at that level. They should be beyond the simplistic, and simply comment about the complexities. I have no argument with Patrick. I do have an argument with why an editorial writer has to expand on Justice Sanders comments. Patrick showed more understanding in his comments than Sanders did in his.

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