Rumbles on the right: In defense of locking up 10x as many blacks as whites

My recent about the tremendous racial disparity in Wisconsin's criminal justice system -- which results in 10 times as many blacks as whites going to jail and prison -- has drawn its first pushback from the right wing.

Rick Esenberg, like John McAdams a member of the Marquette faculty (are there any liberals there?), that I may have "a worthy point:"

Bill does raise a worthy point in arguing that maybe John's evidence doesn't fully explain black-white incarceration differences because of the impact of more stringent enforcement of drug laws. There probably is more aggressive enforcement of drug laws in the black community but its not because, as Bill suggests, that there has been some decision to wage the drug war against African-Americans, Drugs tend to have a more debilitating impact in poor communities and drug offenders are less able to stitch together the treatment and social support network that would warrant more lenient treatment or, more significantly, keep them from the repeat offenses that will eventually get them locked up. While I am skeptical that the government knows how to - or even can - close that gap, it is not so much a matter of race as of economic and cultural(say social if you prefer)factors.

It's disappointing that Esenberg, who goes to great lengths to present himself as a reasonable conservative, accepts McAdams scant evidence, which mostly cited homicide data and showed that more crimes occur in black neighborhoods. That was largely non-responsive to the questions I raised. But whatever; we'll see what his article offers when it's finally published.

The reason poor people don't have the treatment and support network to help them straighten out their lives is that our criminal justice system is much better at punishment than rehabilitation.

And many of the "tough on crime" policies that are in place were put there during the glory years of the GOP, when Republicans held both houses of the legislature and the governorship.

They weren't interested in treatment; many still aren't. The solutions being offered even today are more often longer prison sentences than seeing that people who are behind bars get the help they need, both while they are in prison and after they are released.

The comments section on Esenberg's post include this one from John McAdams, the Marquette professor whose comments about incarceration rates set me off to begin with:

Actually, I do mention drug offenses in my article (which is forthcoming, but which I'm not supposed to release now).

I make points similar to yours. Pot smoking teenagers in the suburbs aren't the community threat that drug use in the inner city is.

It's also the case that the Congressional Black Caucus was keen, in the 1980s, to promote a tough line against crack cocaine. And public opinion polls show blacks as tough on drugs as whites.

That's the view from the ivory tower: No cocaine or crack use of any significance among people in the suburbs; just a little harmless pot smoking now and then. And no meth, OxyContin, Vicodin,or any of the other popular suburban drugs being abused by addicts?

I can find suggest that illegal drug use is taking place at about the same rate among blacks and whites. I haven't found a breakdown by specific kinds of drugs. I did find one for , however, which shows little difference between blacks and whites. It's not a great leap, based on those two reports, to believe that drug use is far closer to even among blacks and whites than to believe blacks are using drugs at 10 times the rate of whites.

This discussion began with McAdams making fun of the governor's commission looking at the issue of disparities in incarceration, and suggesting that it is perfectly appropriate that black adults are locked up at 10+ times the rate of whites, and that black juveniles are sent to adult correctional facilities at 19 times the rate of white juveniles in Wisconsin.

That looks to me like evidence, on its face, of inequities. McAdams says the commission would have to find that it was because of racism before suggesting any fixes.

But whether it is caused by racism or some systemic problem, that kind of disparity is simply not acceptable. That's the point -- and one we should not lose sight of as we debate the numbers and causes.


August 17, 2007 - 1:14pm