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Calling America’s criminal justice system “racist” is not confined to “civil rights leaders” like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Then-Sen. Barack Obama, during the 2008 presidential campaign, said it, too. Blacks and whites, said Obama, “are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates (and) receive very different sentences … for the same crime.”
When the man who became president of the United States says this — the No. 1 law enforcement officer — it must, therefore, be true.
Let’s examine five major assumptions behind this assertion.
1) Blacks are arrested at higher rates compared to whites — but wrongly so.
Not true. While only 13 percent of the population, blacks accounted for 28 percent of nationwide arrests in 2010 and 38.1 percent of arrests for violent crime (murders, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault). But are they unfairly arrested? Studies find that arrest rates by race are comparable to the race of suspect identification by victims.
For example, in a given city, x number of robbery victims describe their assailants as black — whether or not the suspect has been apprehended. It turns out that the race of those arrested matches the percentage given by victims. This has been found repeatedly across the country, in all categories of crime where the race of an assailant is identified. So unless the victims are deliberately misidentifying their assailants — unconcerned about whether the suspect is apprehended and knowingly give a false race — blacks are not being “over-arrested.”
2) Blacks are convicted at higher rates and given longer sentences than whites for the same crime.
Not true. Differences in conviction and sentencing rates by race are due to differences in the gravity of the criminal offenses, prior records or other legal variables. A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases in the country’s 75 largest urban areas actually found lower felony prosecution rates for blacks than whites and that blacks were less likely to be found guilty at trial.
3) The sentence disparity between powder and crack cocaine is racist and accounts for a large percentage of imprisoned blacks.
Not true. Concerned about the deadly effect of crack within their own communities, black members of Congress led the charge to pass the 1986 federal drug laws. The bill that was passed — which included the crack/powder sentencing disparity — did so with the support of the majority of black congresspersons.
None at the time objected to the sentencing disparity as “racist.”
In 2006, the feds tried 5,619 crack sellers, and 4,495 of them were black — out of the 562,000 blacks in state and federal prisons at the end of that year. Add in county and city jails, and the figure rises to 858,000. And states’ crack cocaine laws are not the culprits. Only 13 states employ differing sentencing guidelines for crack vs. powder — and their differential is much smaller than that of the feds.
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