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Race and Crime: More Thoughts--Stuntz

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post. A few responses:

1. Several posts suggested that high crime in urban black neighborhoods might be due to the “don’t snitch” movement and to rising levels of jury nullification. I think this gets causation backward. Jury nullification became a serious problem in a lot of poor city neighborhoods in the 1990s, and it was clearly a response to mass imprisonment in those neighborhoods – especially, mass imprisonment for drug crime. The contemporary “don’t snitch” movement is, in part, a response to the same thing, and in part, a reaction to the fact that the police can’t protect witnesses – because there aren’t enough police officers.

2. Drug dealers and users: Several commenters pointed out, rightly, that I compared the black and white drug prisoner populations to the black and white drug user populations – not to the numbers of black and white drug dealers. This is a problem, I grant, but it’s unavoidable: no one knows the number or the demographics of the drug dealer population; the relevant data simply don’t exist. Everyone familiar with American drug markets assumes that the dealer population is more racially skewed than the user population – but not nearly enough to explain the gap in black and white imprisonment for drug crime. There is simply no way around the fact that, in America today, blacks and whites are subject to different rules for drug crime. It could be that blacks are punished, not ten times more often and more severely than whites for comparable crimes, but “only” five times more often and more severely. Whatever the correct number is, there is no way that the playing field is level, or close to it.

3. Re drug legalization: No, I don’t support it – and neither do most residents of poor city neighborhoods. I DO support applying the same rules everywhere. Drug crime in well-off suburbs is treated too leniently, and drug crime in poorer areas – white and black alike, as a couple of the comments noted – is punished too severely. We need equality and the rule of law, not legalization. At least, so it seems to me.

4. But even more than that, we need more cops on city streets – lots more. Policing is one of the few public policy areas where spending more money demonstrably produces good results. It’s both amazing and appalling that we don’t spend more. Especially so, since hiring more cops, over time, tends to reduce the prison population – which SAVES money in the long run. Easily the best anti-crime initiative of the last generation was Bill Clinton’s proposal to put another 100,000 cops on city streets. Congress funded fewer than 20,000, and the funding was shifted to homeland security after September 11. If we actually did what Clinton proposed, I bet we would see the public policy nirvana in this area: less crime, with smaller prison populations. I keep waiting for one of the current presidential candidates to suggest this, but surprisingly, none of them seems interested in the subject.

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Comments ( 3 )

Watch the movie based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play, Wit. My heart goes out to you that are presently the lead in such a play.

All I can tell you is that my doctor's said I wouldn't live to see thirty when I was 24. I'm now 45. Keep the faith.

I find this post very interesting and well-reasoned except for point number three. That point seems to be flawed in every sentence.

No one is advocating across-the-board legalization tomorrow. Given the pathologies that have been "baked in" by our current situation. (E.g., the extreme violence and criminality of current drug trade, our insufficient social capital for dealing with addiction, the current demand for extremely potent, poisonous drugs.) The most-radical-yet-serious proposal would be to "legalize drug reform" by effectively repealing/replacing the federal Controlled Substances Act. This is the law that the Feds are using to raid medical marijuana dispensaries in California. Those dispensaries are sanctioned and regulated by the states. The point is that citizens around the country are trying to make drug policy more rational and humane but the Controlled Substances Act is a sort of imperial diktat; it's a straitjacket that prevents the emergence of locally crafted solutions that better address local conditions.

Everyone should agree that there should be a level playing field. But why do you want to do that by making drug policy in "well-off suburbs" more cruel? Sure, no one should receive more punishment because they live in the inner city. But given that we have limited resources for law enforcement, why should we use valuable prison space on drug criminals. Here in Charlottesville, a guy who killed another man by stabbing him 18 times was sentenced to three years in jail. We need to punish violence more harshly in this country. Why not make a sharp distinction between killing/violence to others and EVERYTHING ELSE? I find it hard to get too excited about someone selling the wrong kind of cigarettes. (The government of the Commonwealth of Virginia has different priorities: they just outlawed a relative of the mint plant which causes five minute hallucinations and nothing else.)

Finally, to say that legalization is not popular is a red herring. A patient may want to get better, but may not always know the right course of treatment. Gang turf wars are not popular. The shooting of innocent bystanders is not popular. Mass imprisonment is not popular.

We have to focus our efforts on curbing violence. We've tried the easy solution of almost indiscriminate incarceration. We now have 1 in 99 Americans in jail. It's time to get smarter, re-order our priorities, and move our drug policy towards targeting violent criminals while leaving other people with their lives and liberty in tact.

Why do you suppose no one's proposed more police officers? Part of the answer has to be that crime just isn't that salient an issue for the broad swathe of the American electorate. Is there something more there?