A beloved trope of the Marxist Left is that the American criminal justice is somehow “structurally” racist, biased against people of color to an etraordinary degree, thanks to “white” notions of crime. That this assertion is itself racist somehow escapes them but it hasn’t escaped the keen eye of Heather MacDonald, who testified on the subject before Congress recently, and published her testimony in the new edition of City Journal:
Today I want to examine the broader political context of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. We are in the midst of a national movement for deincarceration and decriminalization. That movement rests on the following narrative: America’s criminal justice system, it is said, has become irrationally draconian, ushering in an era of so-called “mass incarceration.” The driving force behind “mass incarceration,” the story goes, is a misconceived war on drugs. As President Barack Obama said in July in Philadelphia: “The real reason our prison population is so high” is that we have “locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before.” In popular understanding, prisons and jails are filled with harmless pot smokers.
The most poisonous claim in the dominant narrative is that our criminal justice system is a product and a source of racial inequity. The drug war in particular is said to be infected by racial bias. “Mass incarceration” is allegedly destroying black communities by taking fathers away from their families and imposing crippling criminal records on released convicts. Finally, prison is condemned as a huge waste of resources.
Nothing in this dominant narrative is true. Prison remains a lifetime achievement award for persistence in criminal offending. Drug enforcement is not the driving factor in the prison system, violent crime is. Even during the most rapid period of prison growth from 1980 to 1990, increased sentences for violent crime played a larger role than drug sentences in the incarceration build up. Since 1999, violent offenders have accounted for all of the increase in the national prison census.
MacDonald, one of the country’s finest analytical writers, brings a wealth of scholarship and statistics to her argument, along with a conspicuous lack of emotion. And if that falls afoul of the current Leftist Narrative (and it does), too bad:
Today, only 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time for drug offenses—nearly all of them for trafficking. Drug possession accounts for only 3.6 percent of state prisoners. Drug offenders make up a larger portion of the federal prison caseload—about 50 percent—but only 13 percent of the nation’s prisoners are under federal control. In 2014, less than 1 percent of sentenced drug offenders in federal court were convicted of simple drug possession; the rest were convicted of trafficking. The size of America’s prison population is a function of our violent crime rate. The U.S. homicide rate is seven times higher than the combined rate of 21 Western nations plus Japan, according to a 2011 study by researchers of the Harvard School of Public Health and UCLA School of Public Health.
The most dangerous misconception about our criminal justice system is that it is pervaded by racial bias. For decades, criminologists have tried to find evidence proving that the overrepresentation of blacks in prison is due to systemic racial inequity. That effort has always come up short. In fact, racial differences in offending account for the disproportionate representation of blacks in prison. A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas found that blacks actually had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites. Following conviction, blacks were more likely to be sentenced to prison, however, due to their more extensive criminal histories and the gravity of their current offense.
She goes on to point out that it was the Congressional Black Congress and other African-American groups who demanded stiffer penalties for the crack epidemic, and states that family breakdown is a far greater cause of inner-city dysfunction than incarceration, which is the symptom, not the cause.
Read the whole thing.