Sunday, April 10, 2016

The *More Black Males In Prison, Therefore Injustice* Argument

   I've complained about this one for long time, but the stuff about Clinton and BLM gives me occasion to complain about it again:
   The fact that group A and group B are imprisoned at differential rates doesn't entail that this is because of (nor even primarily or largely because of) injustice/prejudice. 
   Males are imprisoned at much higher rates than females. In fact, the differential between males and females dwarfs the differential between blacks and whites. But this in no way proves that the judicial system is biased against males--and no one anywhere thinks it does. Because males commit more crimes than women do, and everyone knows that.
   And the fact of the matter is that black males commit crimes--including violent crimes--at a higher rate than white males. So a fair judicial system will imprison black males at a higher rate.
   Why do black males commit crimes at a higher rate than white males? Do they commit crimes at a rate commensurate with their rates of imprisonment? Is the judicial system systematically biased against blacks (or at least black males)? I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but I've read enough to know that it's complicated... And remember, my aim here is not to try to answer questions outside of my area of expertise.
   All I aim to do here is point out, yet again, that differences in incarceration rates alone do not prove bias. Now such differentials do, I think, give prima facie reason to worry that bias is afoot. But all that can do is point us in the direction of addressing more complicated questions. The fact that such a high percentage of black males is in prison is also prima facie reason to look hard at the system--but the percentage, startling as it is in and of itself, it doesn't mean much without knowledge of how many black males are committing what kinds of crimes and so on.
   By all means, be worried about all this. Just don't make the mistake of thinking that differential rates of imprisonment alone are proof of bias.


Blogger Dark Avenger said...

There are significant racial disparities in sentencing decisions in the United States.1 Sentences imposed on Black males in the federal system are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.2 Black and Latino offenders sentenced in state and federal courts face significantly greater odds of incarceration than similarly situated white offenders and receive longer sentences than their white counterparts in some jurisdictions.3 Black male federal defendants receive longer sentences than whites arrested for the same offenses and with comparable criminal histories.

"There are none so blind, as those who will not see."

10:51 AM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

That is not the argument. The argument is that blacks are likelier to get prison time, and longer prison time, for the same crimes than whites. There is plenty of evidence, starting with the 100x higher penalty for crack than for ordinary cocaine. The bottom line is that blacks get more prison time than whites for minor drug crimes.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


That's not *the* argument, it's *one* of the arguments.

The differential incarceration rates argument is *also* an argument. And it's often used by itself--or at least not clearly *not* used by itself. And it's very weak.

I'm all ears about the other arguments... I'm just pointing out that the differential rates argument by itself isn't very weighty. It's weighty enough to force us to look at more complicated arguments like the one you mention. But no weightier.

(Also, as it turns out--though I'm not interested in this here--the more complicated arguments about comparative sentences for comparable crimes and so on are a lot more complicated and less conclusive than most liberals seem to think.

People like us are very, very eager for this all to be the result of injustice in the system. So we enthusiastically and rather uncritically accept arguments to that effect. It's not my area...but I have to say that even a little poking around into those arguments has been disappointing and alarming to me.

Perhaps naively, I expected them to be way stronger and more conclusive and obviously so than they seem to be. That report on my own reaction doesn't mean much given that I really did expect extremely simple, straightforward, more-or-less conclusive proofs about this. And maybe we never get that in social science... But even if that's so...then it's *still* bad for those of us who are eager for the injustice explanation to be obviously right...)

11:33 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


"There are none so blind, as those who will not see."

Physician, heal see where I'm going with this...

Yes, yes, we're all familiar with those claims. But (a) I'm only pointing out that the differential incarceration rates argument *per se* is a weak one, not that there are not other arguments that are strong.

See how that works?

And (b)--incidentally and just by way of looking to other parts of the turns out that assertions like those of the ACLU aren't obviously quite right. Yes, we *want* them to be true. And they *might* be... But there is reason to think that they might not be telling the whole story. That is, it turns out that those comparative rates may not actually be comparing like crimes to like crimes.

I expect that ultimately they'll turn out to be pretty much right...but, then, that's what I *want* to I can't help but be rather uncomfortable that it's so easy to find information that casts doubt on them...

11:42 AM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Winston, either the data and/or the logic use in the ACLU report are falsifiable or they are not.

But I find it amusing that you want to proclaim race is more than a social construct, but then turn around deny it has a significant role in contemporary American society as a whole.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

You're not making any sense, DA.

Look back on your last comment.

Can you identify the obvious error there?

5:03 PM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Seeing as " it's outside your area of expertise, your Pee-Wee Herman response is to be expected.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Seriously, DA. You keep leaving childish, half-baked comments... Are you just throwing a tantrum this time, or do you honestly not understand the error you've made?

I'm honestly curious.

8:55 PM  
Blogger Pete Mack said...

So I ran the numbers, and there are about 30% more blacks in prison, even after adjusting for the higher relative crime rate among blacks.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


(a) Of course I'm not denying that.

(b) And it's really, really bad if true.

(c) Though I *will* add that, if some of the stuff I've been reading is even vaguely right, there turn out to be complications so complicated that even criminologists are not sure how to handle them--e.g. having to do with the use of weapons in crimes. I'm not convinced one way or another about all this. But it turns out to be less simple than I thought.

(d) And don't forget, I'm currently just interested in the invalidity of the differential imprisonment rates argument.

4:51 PM  

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