A Grim Alternative


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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120 Responses

  1. Avatar BSK says:

    “The prison population boom happened entirely within my lifetime.  Further, very few of us are actually running the system, and the rest of us could indeed change it.  I still have hope.)”


    I think of three primary variables that go into a prison population:

    A)  Criminality

    B)  Laws

    C)  Enforcement

    So, which change?

    Are people simply more criminal now adays?  Are we (more) evil?

    Are more things illegal, particularly things that were once legal but now aren’t?

    Are the same laws being broken at the same rate, but people are being put away more frequently and/or for longer?


    I’m tempted to follow the last two questions with: Is the government evil?  But I won’t.  Not explicitly.

    It is certainly possibly, if not probably, that there is a both/and answer to this question.  Or that there are factors I’m ignoring.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to BSK says:

      I might suggest that the reason comes down to a mixture of good intentions and lack of focus.  Most initiatives that strengthen sentencing guidelines, for example, are ver popular with people – for mostly good intentions.  But after such bills get passed, it’s kind of out of sight out of mind.  As I noted below in my question to Jason, I think people by and large – vey large – believe it’s almost impossible to get a conviction against someone that is guilty of a crime.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BSK says:

      Lots of things became crimes that weren’t before, but these are for the most part not the reason more people are in prison.

      More people are in prison because of much longer sentences and much greater enforcement of the drug laws.    People have been using recreational drugs at relatively constant rates when compared to the rate of change in the prison population.  They’ve just been serving longer when caught, and more resources have gone toward catching (a still insignificant share of) the overall drug using population.


    • Avatar Michelle in reply to BSK says:

      One reason for the increase in prison populations is the proliferation of three-strike laws, many of which are relatively draconian. California’s, which was upheld by the Supreme Court a few years back, requires that anyone found guilty of a third felony automatically serves 20 years before being eligible for parole. And by felonies, we’re not necessarily talking murder, armed robbery, or kidnapping; we’re talking the kinds of property crimes and theft frequently committed by drug addicts in search of the cash that enables them to feed their addiction.

      Another major factor is the war on drugs, which, as Ron Paul correctly points out, is waged much more aggressively against African-Americans and Latinos than o whites, the poor as opposed to the well-off. I think the sentencing rules have been changed, but for a long time sentences for possession and sale of crack cocaine (used primarily by minorities) were far more severe than those for cocaine in its powder form (used primarily by whites).Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michelle says:

        The War on Drugs is waged primarily against Hispanics because they’re the ones importing the drugs.    A well heeled cokehead can afford powder and the poor cokehead has to settle for rock.   But again, as I’ve pointed out below, the elephant in the room is representation at trial:   the well-heeled cokehead can afford an attorney and the poor one gets a PD and therefore goes to jail.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Definitely true, and definitely a part of the problem.  The rise of plea bargaining and the demise of the jury trial is not an exogenous factor, however.  It’s an economizing step that was also induced by the War on Drugs.  (I’m pretty sure you agree on this, but I’d like to be as clear as possible.)Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            That being the case, let’s just dispense with all this maudlin rhetoric about the Legacy of the Plantation.   It’s the legacy of our adversarial legal system which pits a State’s Attorney against a private attorney or a public defender.   When the PD’s offices are fitted out as nicely as the State’s Attorney’s offices, then let’s talk about other considerations.

            Political chicanery means judges aren’t being appointed to the bench.   The War on Drugs hasn’t affected the legal system in the slightest, these little dealers and addicts are processed through the system like shit through a goose.   They never spend any time in court.    The defendants who have some guy in a good suit on their side of the courtroom, they get trials.Report

            • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BlaiseP says:

              The War on Drugs hasn’t affected the legal system in the slightest, these little dealers and addicts are processed through the system like shit through a goose.

              But only because they overwhelmingly take plea bargains.  They do so because there are so many of them, and because long sentences make the risks of a trial unappealing.  It’s one part of a larger process, and only one part of the picture.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Oh I dunno.   Again that depends on the defense attorney.    The justice system is so clogged up and the prisons so overcrowded, a good defense attorney can put the shoe on the other foot, you know, the shoe the State’s Attorney tries to put on the Public Defender when it’s some poor kid on the docket.Report

            • Avatar Mo in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Then what do you say about the statistics that show that young minority men use drugs at a lower rate than their white peers, but are more likely to get arrested. Yes, all those arrested get processed through, but who is more likely to get stop and frisked and arrested, the white kid with pot at Columbia or the black kid walking home in Harlem.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mo says:

                Here’s the way arrest stats work.   The Columbia University kid is in ZIP 10027, that’s NYPD 28th Precinct, a high crime area of NYC.   Look at the stats for yourself.   You want me to derive the odds of that kid getting arrested?   Give me a better example, because ZIP 10027 is in Harlem.


              • Avatar Mo in reply to BlaiseP says:

                That is precisely my point. I picked the white Columbia student and the black kid in Harlem precisely because you can’t use, “They live in different types of neighborhoods, so arrest rates are going to be different. The problem is, even if completely innocent, a young black man is far more likely to get stopped and frisked* than a young white man. So even if there’s an equal likelihood that they’re both in possession, the former is more likely to end up in jail than the latter.

                * In case you’re unaware, the racial mix of NYC isn’t 50% black, 30% Hispanic and 10% white, though one would guess that if the stop and frisks were random.Report

              • Avatar BSK in reply to Mo says:

                I’ve seen this playout first hand.  When I lived in DC, I used to frequent Adams Morgan, which threw every group of young and semi-young adult together.  At the end of the night, all the bars, clubs, and lounges spilled out into a very narrow street.  Police presence was high.  My friends and I, all white, all drunk, could run through traffic and climb telephone poles and all we’d get was a, “Alright, fellas, enough fun for one night.  Time to head home.”  The black kids who were eating pizza and leaning against a treat, who, if they were drunk, were not nearly as drunk as my friends and I, got chased out with threats of arrest.  Any backtalk and they were in a squad car.  This wasn’t even same crime, different sentence.  It was whites being far more egregious in their behavior than blacks and the latter getting a far stronger response.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mo says:

                Look, speaking only as a stats guy, those stats don’t mean anything.  To mean something, I’d want to see more data on arrests, indigent findings and PD assignments, conviction details, and sentences.

                That would make more sense.   “Totally innocent” is not meaningful.   A judge declares someone innocent.   A probable cause search which doesn’t result in an arrest isn’t a declaration of innocence.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Mo says:

                And there’s a further statistical wrinkle to those numbers.   Of those 514,461 probable cause searches, I’d want to see a spectrum analysis of how many distinct people were thus stopped and frisked.  Some of these people have been frisked dozens of times, gang crimes units will routinely do a PC search on encountering a gang set.   Prostitutes, known addicts, parolees, many factors would enter into a PC search.Report

        • Avatar Michelle in reply to BlaiseP says:

          I think a lot depends on what part of the country you live in. In California, Arizona, and other border states–yes, it’s primarily a war on Latinos. In the Chicago area, it’s waged on both African Americans and Latinos.

          I agree that representation plays a part. The defendant who has to rely on a public defender is more likely to end up in jail, but the one who can hire a defense attorney will, more likely than not, also end up in jail, albeit his sentence may not be as bad. The overwhelming number of criminal cases are plead out.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Michelle says:

            As in any war, we must draw up the order of battle.   Within the War on Drugs is the War for Drugs, a war which produces plenty of casualties independent of anything the cops or Feds are doing.

            In Chicago, the gangs who control distribution territory are in open warfare against each other for a single street corner.   Our pitiful attempts to imprison these folks only result in transferring these crooks to the prison system, controlled just as completely by the gangs inside the walls.   It’s reached the point where the gangs inside the walls control the War for Drugs from inside the walls.


  2. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    +1, many times over.

    So here’s my follow up question for you, JK, since you think about the prison quagmire a lot more the I do:  Why is it that, despite the record number of … well, of just about everything prison related, it remains the common wisdom in our country that – due to various bleeding heart rules and regs – it is almost impossible to convict a criminal?  It seems like that fallacy needs to be addressed before any kind of meaningful movement of change can occur.Report

    • Avatar BSK in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Because many politicians have hung their hat on scaring people about the big bad bogeyman who got away COUGH*WILLIEHORTON*COUGH.  Yes, some have hung their hats on the wrongly convicted.  But fear is a far more motivating emotion than sympathy.  So if you hear about 5 cases wherein a person who was likely guilty was acquitted and 5 cases wherein a person who was likely innocent was convicted, the former resonate more.  And no one talks about the cases where things go right.

      Also, “Law & Order”.Report

      • Avatar greginak in reply to BSK says:

        Don’t go to far in blaming pols. People buy into this, people are responsible for their own brains. I still hear people whine about this stuff, about the criminals are running wild and good decent people aren’t safe.Report

        • Avatar BSK in reply to greginak says:

          Very true.  I really should have expanded to say “politicians, media members, and others”.  They play up the “threat” and people buy into it for one reason or another.  Many don’t need much help to come to the conclusions they do.

          Still, I blame “Law & Order”.  I know that seems a little silly, but given that it is on 74 hours a day and it misrepresents just about every step of the process, it is legitimately influential in how people assess our criminal justice system.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I think this is basically a cultural thing.

      Movies and high-profile cases, basically.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Gopnik actually talks about this a bit.  It’s what he calls the northern explanation for the prison boom:

      The trouble with the Bill of Rights, [argued William J. Stuntz], is that it emphasizes process and procedure rather than principles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man says, Be just! The Bill of Rights says, Be fair! Instead of announcing general principles—no one should be accused of something that wasn’t a crime when he did it; cruel punishments are always wrong; the goal of justice is, above all, that justice be done—it talks procedurally. You can’t search someone without a reason; you can’t accuse him without allowing him to see the evidence; and so on. This emphasis, Stuntz thinks, has led to the current mess, where accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life.

      I think there is certainly a lot of truth to this. I do find some difficulty however with the chronology — if the above was a serious problem, why did it take until the 1980s to explode?

      The southern explanation has less difficulty with chronology; the attempted rise of the black middle class in the 60s and 70s was met by white racism.Report

      • Avatar BradK in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        why did it take until the 1980s to explode?

        I would think the answer to this question lies in the last line of your quote from Gopnik:

        You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life.

        Even though Nixon declared the WoD over a decade earlier, the 1980’s escalation resulted in a higher percentage of overall criminal cases involving drug possession.

        Consider what’s involved with prosecuting, say, a murder or rape (at least before DNA analysis became widespread), or a property crime.  These offenses are pursued after the fact — you have to first identify the suspect and then prove they did the deed.  This often involves unreliable witnesses, stolen property that may not have actually been recovered, various circumstantial evidence, and usually an alleged motive.

        Drug possession cases almost never have to deal with these pesky details.  People are arrested by LEO’s in the act of possessing controlled substances in the present.  You are either holding or your not.  About the only way for a suspect to beat the rap would be if the officer committed a technical error or some egregious violation of their civil rights — and even then the burden of proof is on the suspect.  It’s your word against the cop’s…and we all know cops never lie.  Compare that to a civilian witness in court trying to finger a robbery suspect who they claim they saw leaving the scene of a crime (at night, in a dark alley).  There’s just so much more for a competent defense attorney to work with than in a drug case where it’s a cop testifying and not a civilian, “The suspect had 3 grams of rock cocaine in his pocket” and backed up by a lab tech. verifying that, “Yes your honor, this was indeed rock cocaine.”  This is more or less unimpeachable in many/most courts, which is likely why most are plead out.

        My point is that these considerations might drive a motivated defense attorney to seek out and leverage procedural errors that would otherwise be overlooked in a non drug prosecution.  An effort an over-burdened PD doesn’t have the resources to utilize.

        Or maybe I’ve just seen too much “Law & Order” (where PD’s are almost always portrayed as being on par with expensive private attorneys — Shambala Green being the best and most entertaining).Report

  3. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I’m not sure I’d blame the Texas Plantation for what’s become of our prison system.   I’ve been much-exercised on this subject for many years.   Here are my theories:

    The American judicial system is a procedural nightmare.   Unless a defendant has a competent lawyer, his odds of incarceration go up dramatically.    Public defenders are horribly overworked.   Often they arrive in court woefully unprepared, all too willing to plead down a charge, where a prepared attorney would enter a Not Guilty plea and proceed to trial.

    Though it is true people of color are over-represented in our prison systems, this is more properly attributed to rates of unemployment and poverty:  see previous paragraph.   The services of an attorney willing to take a felony case to trial do not come cheap.   There doesn’t seem to be any direct correlation we can attribute to prejudice directly:  many poor Hispanics and Asians fall through the same trap door as the poor people of color.   The Fisher Distribution vector we’re looking for is ZIP code:  those stats are there and I’ve worked with them.   People from low-rent neighborhoods go to jail.    There’s another correlation:  broken homes.   Boys without fathers go to jail.Report

    • Avatar BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:


      But there are other issues at play.  Whites and black convicted of the same crime do not get the same sentence.  Is some of this attributable to representation?  Absolutely.  But I’d be hardpressed to believe it explains 100% of it.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BSK says:

        Of course you’re right.  Any derived stat which comes out at 100% has an error in the formula.   Let’s just put the facts on the table:  it’s not the Legacy of the Plantation which puts black men in jail far out of proportion to their numbers.  It’s inadequate representation for the most part.   That doesn’t seem to enter into Gopnik’s or Stutz’s conclusions, though they obliquely address the issues of privilege.


        • Avatar BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:

          I suppose it depends on how we define “legacy of the plantation”.  It wouldn’t be hard to draw a line between the legacy (and ongoing effect) of institutionalized racism with defendents of color, particularly African-Americans, with their poor representation.

          As I see it… a major reason black men don’t seem to get a fair shake in the criminal justice system is because they have bad counsel.  A major reason they have bad counsel is because they cannot afford good counsel.  A major reason they cannot afford good counsel is…

          Ultimately, this is an issue where race and class conflate.  Would I rather be a rich black defendent or a poor white one?  The former, almost assuredly.  Would I rather be a poor black or poor white defendent?  The latter, almost assuredly.

          Should I stop asking myself questions and just say what I mean?  Yes.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BSK says:

            I used to think like you do at present.   I fell in with a criminologist at Louisiana State University and we sorta worked on this problem.   It turns out the poor white guy and the poor black guy’s odds of conviction and terms of incarceration are exactly the same. Most court systems have sentencing guidelines which operate independently of race.Report

            • Avatar BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:

              Those guideliness have been turned from “mandatory” to “advisory” and, according to the study I just heard cited on the radio today, has allowed the discrepancy to resurface.  It is not so much that blacks are getting harsher sentences; their’s have stayed the same.  Whites are getting lighter sentences.  To the tune of 20% less time served, overall.

              I think there are also factors that, unfortunately, can’t be controlled for.  The makeup of a jury is a factor is determining guilt and innocence and racial bias, both explicit and implicit, CAN (but does not always) come into play.  Again, this is not something that really can or even should be controlled for, but is an unfortunate reality.Report

            • Avatar BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:

              “”There’s 2,000 child porn cases, and about 1,200 of them have below-guideline sentences, and they’re all white defendants,” Berman said. “And so now I think the easiest explanation for that entire 20 percent — or if not the entire 20 percent, than at least a big part of that — is, in fact, white child porn downloaders are getting significant leniency.””

              From here: http://www.npr.org/2012/01/31/146081922/gop-seeks-big-changes-in-federal-prison-sentencesReport

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BSK says:

                Well, again, I’d really like to see some of this borne out by the numbers.   I haven’t seen any such numbers and I’ve been upset about the racial disparities in the justice system for over a decade.   The work I have done on this subject has led me to believe the overwhelming difference is representation at trial and the ZIP codes of the defendants in question.

                Of course, every statistician falls prey to drawing conclusions from his own data, all the other data not put into evidence.   This issue has bugged me for a long time, BSK.   If I had the data, I’d be willing to examine it.Report

              • Avatar BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I’ll see what I can dig up but likely it won’t be sufficient to really get at what we are looking for.

                I don’t deny that representation and ZIP code matter.  I am sure they are major factors.  I think race is also a major factor.  And the way in which all of these variables intersect is important, since none of them happen in a vacuum.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BSK says:

                I have this theory about cops, based on my older cousin who retired from the police force some years back.   Cops see the ragged bleeding edges of society.    They interact with the very worst society has to offer.   They are obliged to deal with the consequences of crime.   They have to forcibly restrain the grieving mothers, ululating in primal anguish over their dead children, illuminated in the red and blue mars lights of those copmobiles.

                Shit I couldn’t do it.   I’ve been in some disgusting situations Lord knows.   Done my share of atoning for my sins.   But I didn’t have to go home to my wife and kids after an episode like that.   I could simply keep that stuff to myself and not bother folks with my inner turmoil.   I could dissect away myself in uniform from myself in a pair of jeans.  On bad days, when this stuff floats up to the top of the cesspool of my dreaming life, I put on a pair of black jeans.   That’s my wrapper, tells me I’m not a soldier anymore.   Insulates me.   Dissects it away.  It’s how I cope.

                I’m wearing a pair of black jeans now.

                But a cop?   That’s his job.   He’s got to deal with it, every day, one full shift at a time.   Dude, I couldn’t be a cop.   I’m warped enough.   I couldn’t wear a weapon again and call it my job.


              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to BSK says:

                My old ISP had as a customer; a white child porn downloader who was tried and convicted in Federal court and was given 6 years, no possibility of parole in a federal prison with all kinds of miscreants far worse than him, including murderers who got out earlier. This guy was a college educated management type who was really a porn addict, not a child porn addict. Unfortunately like many of his stripe, he accumulated everything and threw nothing away and some of what he’d accumulated was “in the expert opinion of an expert” child porn, because of small breasts and minimal pubic hair, notwithstanding that models of any age who /appear/ young regularly receive lucrative contracts and they admitted in court that none of the pictures he had saved showed anyone “apparently younger than 16”. Weak sauce all around, but this was in the early Internet days and the Feds wanted to make a “point”. His /real/ crime? Giving his credit card number to a company the feds didn’t want in business. I spoke with his defense lawyer and the federal prosecutor. They both admitted that he’d been ground up like hamburger by a system that could care less about the individual.  If anything, being “white” made it worse for him because the message the government wanted “sent” loud and clear was not to support porn web sites. Obviously they failed miserably. Too bad for that guy, whoops.Report

            • Avatar Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

              joyriding gets a very different sentence than car theft.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    From the article:

    “there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.”

    What, we should kill ’em instead, like Stalin did?Report

  5. Avatar greginak says:

    On a related note i’ve read research that pins the lowered crime levels we have now on lower lead levels. This Wash Post article summarises the idea. What makes this research interesting is the guy compared several countries and found a correlation ( yes i know about what you can make of correlations) between lowered lead and crime levels. This isn’t sexy research at all but it is interesting.


    More good info


  6. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    I think the most obvious answer to our prison problem continues to be a very flawed drug policy.

    I will also say that I don’t like the imagery of this being some new form of slavery or Jim Crow. They key difference being that these incarcerations, however unjust, started with free will and a personal choice. Slavery and Jim Crow did not.Report

  7. Avatar North says:

    A question: do you think that the shuttering of the various government asylums and mental hospitals may have had an impact on this as well. Sure some of those people got taken in by their families, another portion of those people perhaps can function in society on some level and another large portion live on park benches and homeless shelters but I would assume the worst mental cases end up either dead or in prison.Report

    • Avatar greginak in reply to North says:

      The process of de-institutionalisation emptied state psych hospitals, that is true. Most of those people were not likely to have long jail terms if they got in trouble, they tended to, if at all, commit minor crimes. There were many mental health centers that opened programs to help keep the long term mentally ill stay out of state psych hospitals. I worked in one for years. We had to develop supported housing and case management programs and strategies that worked well since there was little out there when they started to empty the hospitals. Some of our clients had committed serious crimes which led them to state psych hospitals but they were never likely to be a danger, other then to themselves, long term. They couldn’t function without help, but we (funded by the fed and state gov, since the local communities didn’t want to help) were there.

      There is a problem with having mentally ill people in jail but they tend to be higher functioning then those who ended up in state psych hospitals.Report

  8. Avatar MFarmer says:

    I’m not sure why one of the parties hasn’t made an issue of incarceration for drug use. Drug education for abuse and treatment for addiction are much better responses to our drug problem and I think the majority of Americans realize this now. Most people have experienced some drug problem of some sort in their family or a friend’s family.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to MFarmer says:

      Because neither party has the guts to try it, and even if they did neither has the imagination to pull it off.  Easier to say “not politically possible” and kick the can down the road, waiting for the generation who grew up with de facto legalization to start getting elected.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Unfortunately this.

        Neither party sees an upside on talking to the American citizenry as if they were grownups capable of meaningful risk analysis.

        The reasons for this, and whether or not they are justifiable reasons, are left as an exercise to the reader.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          That said, I was amazed at how a town meeting regarding legal marijuana-distribution centers in the heart of SF Bay Area California–a place you’d think would be a bastion of “legalize it”–had speaker after speaker stand up and tell us how allowing marijuana centers would destroy society.

          I kind of wish I’d gotten on the schedule–we were there for something else that was concluded earlier–and stood up to say “look, I can buy whiskey at a grocery store and beer at a gas station, so apparently we’re quite able to manage the distribution of narcotic drugs–and if we aren’t then we have a bigger problem than marijuana”.Report

        • Avatar BradK in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          That knife cuts both ways though.  Far too much of the electorate still embraces the nanny state.  We need the government to tell us what is not good for us…and to incarcerate us for a very long time if don’t listen to them.  Think of the Children!

          And it’s hard to get past the correlation of lowering crime rates with exploding prison populations.  If crime is going down so dramatically then locking everyone up must be a good thing right?  The assumption being that if we let them out of prison crime will again rise.  I’m not arguing the validity of this point but rather the perception among those who vote — along with those who pander to them for their vote.  It’s worse to be seen as soft on crime than a socialist


          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BradK says:

            it’s hard to get past the correlation of lowering crime rates with exploding prison populations.  If crime is going down so dramatically then locking everyone up must be a good thing right? 

            If there’s a causality here, then it can only mean one thing:  Americans are the most evil people on earth.  We deserve a lot more prison than any other country.

            It’s surpassingly odd to find this as the logical implication of the same party that will also tell that you America is the greatest nation on earth, and that the other party doesn’t love America enough.Report

            • Avatar BradK in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              We deserve a lot more prison than any other country.

              Not We, Jason, ThemThem being poor non-whites, along with a few white kiddie porn fans to set an example.

              At least until the leaded generation dies off, preferably behind bars.Report

              • Avatar BradK in reply to BradK says:

                The point of my sarcasm above being that most people who support the tough on crime at any cost agenda have never been on the receiving end of said justice, as Gopnik notes in his opening sentence.  Nor are the likely to know or even come in contact with someone who has.  It’s eternally an Us Vs. Them scenario where it’s good to be one of Us and sucks to be one of Them.  And therefore easier to support an ever more medieval (in)justice system.


    • Avatar Kim in reply to MFarmer says:

      Webb did. but he got run out of town for trying.Report

  9. Avatar BradK says:

    Another contrast between drug and non-drug convictions (and their subsequent impact on the prison population) is the notion of “possession with intent to sell”.  Somebody somewhere draws a line in the sand and says, “If you are caught with more than n quantity of x substance you are automatically assumed to be a dealer.”  Once this arbitrary line is crossed the penalties increase exponentially.

    I can’t think of any other crime where you can be accused, convicted, and (harshly) sentenced for something you haven’t actually committed but only may commit.  So you have a 1/2 pound of cocaine on your person?  What if you’re just a heavy user?

    Reminds me of the “precrime bureau” in Minority Report.


  10. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    “Blacks are now incarcerated seven times as often as whites.”

    It’s dishonest for Gopnick to point this out without also mentioning that blacks commit crimes at much higher rates than whites. Therer are actually more murders committed by blacks than by whites, despite the fact that there are about seven times as many whites. The rates for other violent crimes aren’t quite as lopsided, but blacks are still heavily overrepresented in the statistics.

    I’m all for ending the war on drugs, but people who commit real crimes do need to go to prison to keep them off the streets. Even if no one were ever sent to prison for victimless crimes, blacks would still go to prison at much higher rates, so this statistic is not in and of itself proof of Gopnick’s thesis.

    It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of crime is intraracial. When black criminals go free, it’s not primarily white people who pay the price.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      Blacks do not, however, use drugs at higher rates.  In fact their rate is lower — and yet it is drug-related crime in particular that causes the disparity.  (Yes, violent drug-related crime too, but there would be a whole lot less of it under a legalization and public health approach to drugs.)

      While it’s abbreviating a very large issue, I don’t see all that much wrong with the way he did it.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        To be clear, though, less than a quarter of prisoners are in prison for drug offenses.. See Table 16B and 17B on pages 28-29 of this PDF. Among all state prisoners, about 19% are in for drug offenses. About half of federal prisoners are, but the vast majority of prisoners are state prisoners. If you add in federal prisoners, it brings the total for drug offenses up to 22%.

        50% of non-Hispanic white state prisoners and 54% of non-Hispanic black state prisoners are in prison for violent offenses. 25% of whites and 15% of blacks for property crimes. And 15% of whites and 22% of blacks for drug offenses. So there is a pretty big racial disparity there, considering that whites outnumber blacks about 7-to-1 in the general population but have roughly equal numbers in prison.

        Some of it is likely due to racist application of drug laws, though I think there are probably other factors at play as well, such as black drug users tending to live in high-crime areas where there’s more police activity.

        That said, even if we released all state drug offenders from prison, the ratio of black to white prisoners would shift from 1.1 to 1.0. Blacks would still be overrepresented in prison by a factor of six instead of seven, or something like that.

        I really get the impression, from the excerpt that you quoted, anyway, that Gopnik would like readers to conclude that the gap is entirely due to racism rather than being largely due to blacks committing crimes at higher rates.Report

        • Avatar Kim in reply to Brandon Berg says:

          … I don’t think it’s due to blacks committing crimes at “higher rates.”

          wasn’t Wasilla the rape capital of America for a while?Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

            [Citation needed.]Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Here’s something.   The stats are kinda old, but it’s a working start.Report

            • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

              Jason, you’re so funny, asking Kim for a citation. Here’s the answer BTW:

              Wasilla, a city of approximately 7000, typically sees between one and four reported rapes per year, according to federal crime statistics.Report

              • Avatar Kim in reply to wardsmith says:

                ‘sfunnier since I decided to plonk him.

                The truth is far more amazing than most people give it credit for. And much wilder than fiction — because fiction has to make sense.

                That said, I think we’re all in agreement that you should just consider me an amiable raconteur…Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to Kim says:

                I wouldn’t have expected an answer from you anyway.  Not even before you “plonked” me (is there a plugin for that?  If so, I’d love to see it).

                Meanwhile…  Wardsmith and Blaise have offered the data I’ve asked for, at least partially, and it appears that you’re up to your usual tricks, spewing bullshit and then moving on to spew again somewhere else. (Consider Detroit, for instance.  Do the math, and you’ll notice that Wasilla doesn’t have anything on it in the rape department.)

                I’m no fan of Sarah Palin, and it annoys me tremendously to have to say anything that even appears to defend her. But still.  Honesty is honesty.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                Sarah Palin discussions always devolve, spinning into the Crazy Zone like hapless spaghetti astronauts being pulled into a black hole.   Contemplating the Crazy Event Horizon boggles the mind.

                The Sarah Zone.  Time stops.   The Crazy starts.


              • Avatar Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I realized just now that the only Kim comments I’ve read in quite some time are the ones in which she makes some claim that causes you to ask for a cite, and then to point out that she’s full o’ shit. Without your replies, I wouldn’t have read anything she’s written in the last several months. So curse you for that.Report

  11. Avatar Austin Middleton says:

    May I suggest a third explanation to the rise of minority prison populations in the last 40 years:

    The Civil Rights movement (and I will say that it is noble, just, true, and honorable), began the outlawing of discrimination and a series of equal pay measures such that if a minority was hired, their wage be the same as a white worker.

    Suppose you’re a bigoted store proprietor, and you’re looking to hire help. A minority boy and a white boy apply for the position. The laws state that you must offer them identical wages. You, the bigot, obviously hire the white boy; not only does he gratify your prejudices, but he represents an identical labor cost. If you gain utility from hiring a white boy you may even say that the white boy is less costly. With the wage law in place, the bigoted cost-minimizing store owner hires the white boy.

    Now suppose the two boys were allowed to compete on wages: because the minority knows that at an identical wage as the white boy will result in not getting hired, he lowers his reserve wage. At static equilibrium, he will lower his reserve wage to the point that the bigoted owner is indifferent between hiring either the minority or the white applicant. In this way, the bigoted store owner is forced to pay to indulge his prejudices, as surely as some who chooses to pay more for organic produce.

    The natural presumption is that quotas will be introduced to ensure the hiring of some minorities (who will benefit from the raised wage relative what they would have gotten in the legislation’s absence, much like union workers benefit at the expense of now unemployed non-union workers).

    With these kinds of hiring regulations in place one would expect a spike in the unemployment rate of minorities.

    Everything else equal, what does this do to the relative costs and benefits of crime versus civil virtue? Because income equality legislation lowers the relative benefit of lawful working (through the mechanism of incentivizing employers’ prejudices), it tautologically raises the relative benefit of crime. The higher the benefits, the more something is supplied. It just so happens that the prison population has swelled from the exact ranks from those left victimized by that well-intentioned legislation.

    I should point out that this explanation does not require anyone to have grown more evil, or lazier, smarter, stupider, or otherwise. It only assumes that as costs rise, less is consumed: the civil rights act raised the cost of hiring minorities, and therefore fewer were hired; furthermore that as benefits rise, more is produced: the change in the relative benefits of honesty and larceny produced an increase in the larceny produced.

    Thus, your prison population.

    For an in-depth treatment of this subject, I recommend Walter Williams’ “The State Against Blacks”. Or perhaps just Wikipedia him.

    ***I should note that all of this analysis is subject to ceteris paribus; as the laws regarding imprisonment and criminality have indeed changed over the decades, I do not claim that my explanation encapsulates the entirety of the prison population growth. It is, however, more appealing to me than the stories offered by the New Yorker.***Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak in reply to Austin Middleton says:

      Wow, blaming civil rights legislation for the minority prison population?

      See guys, this is why libertarians get a bad name out there in the rest of the Internet.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        Well, maybe Jesse. I mean, aren’t you aware that pro-choice liberals are responsible for George Tiller’s murder?Report

      • Avatar Austin Middleton in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        Do you disagree with any of the particulars, or just the conclusion?Report

        • Avatar Liberty60 in reply to Austin Middleton says:

          If only we were allowed to pay black people less than white people, their lives would be so much better, don’t you see?Report

        • Avatar BSK in reply to Austin Middleton says:

          Um, blacks do get paid less, despite CR legislation.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki in reply to BSK says:

            The flaw in the argument is that blacks were almost always paid less and almost always had higher unemployment.  Was there a “spike” in their unemployment rate?  More like a plateau, I think.

            I’d be interested to see more data, but I’m skeptical.


            • Avatar Austin Middleton in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:


              Yes, blacks have always had higher rates of unemployment than the corresponding whites in terms of age and sex at any given time cross-section, but the growth rates of racial unemployment are very different. While the white unemployment rate may have increased by 50%, the black rate has tripled. Along those lines, anyway.

              I can’t reproduce it offhand, but if you’re interested in seeing more data on this subject, I very much recommend Williams’ “The State Against Blacks”. Its arguments are parallel to mine (increasing the cost of hiring leads to fewer hires/changing the relative benefit of crime leads to more crime), though fleshed out in a characteristic Williams sort of way.


        • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Austin Middleton says:

          You must be new here. Just ignore him.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Austin Middleton says:

          The particulars. In addition to being empirically unsound, you leave out too many premises to evaluate the argument logically as well.Report

          • Avatar Austin Middleton in reply to Chris says:

            Empirically unsound? Am I not using the data presented in the article? The minority prison population has exploded in the last 40 years; the minority unemployment rate has exploded in the last 40 years; Civil Rights legislation had a big push 40 years ago. What’s unsound?


            Too few premises? Ok, here are my premises:

            From the perspective of the Employer

            –Wage legislation makes it more costly to hire minorities. Therefore fewer minorities are hired than otherwise would be.

            From the perspective of the Minority

            –The reduced benefit of honesty leads to an increase in the relative benefit of larceny. Therefore more larceny is committed by minorities than would otherwise be.

            Really these are the same premise: Demand Curves Slope Downward. What do you suggest adding?

            I should like to call attention back to my caveat: I know this didn’t happen in a bubble, and that other legislation and policing policy has affected this, and never claimed for the totality of the effect to have been produced solely by the Civil Rights Act. Do you reject out of hand that it may have been agrivated by the effects above?Report

          • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

            You’re not using data.

            The unemployment rate among African Americans did double from 1955 to 1985 (though almost all of that jump occurred in the 1980s (all of it occurred between the mid 70s and the mid 80s), well after the it should have in your scenario. In fact, as the Civil Rights Movement reached its nadir, African American unmployment went down, and down, and down, to about half its 1955 level. It’s now about what it was in 1955.

            What’s more, the average earnings of black men has gone down in that period. It’s also never caught up to, or even gotten much closer to white male average earnings.

            So, the facts don’t fit your scenario.

            As to the logic, you require, for example, that it is rational (and your logic only works if the employers are behaving rationally) to hire minorities if they make less than whites (which, empirically, they still do). You don’t present either that premise or an argument for it. What’s more, you require that civil rights legislation make employers less rational, in that they are no longer considering ROI, but only considering the cost associated with wages and the color of the employee.

            Anyway, I’m not sure why I’m actually acknowledging this nonsense. I promise I won’t do it again.Report

            • Avatar Austin Middleton in reply to Chris says:

              The bureau of labor statistics does not include prison populations (“institutional populations”) in its calculations of unemployment. This is how you can see a general trend of black unemployment maintaining a relative size double that of white unemployment, even as, as I suggest, the relative benefits of larceny to honesty increase, prompting an increase in the supply of larceny and prison populations.

              Again: this does not occur in vacuum, nor have I ever claimed this as the sole driver of prison populations or unemployment.

              Also: funny thing about statistics. The average age of the white worker has increased while the average age of the black worker has relatively decreased, due to population growth trends and the increased enrollment of whites in college relative to blacks. Because years of experience is a major determining factor of income, everything else equal, you would expect blacks to make less, or at least, not have their incomes converge.

              I do not say it is rational to only hire minorities if they make less. I suggest that bigots, who in this example have an internalized dislike for minorities, would prefer white employees ceteris paribus. Nor am I suggesting that labor costs per hour is the only metric employers use in hiring. Mine is an example of how you can witness a deleterious effect on employment resulting from a well-intentioned piece of legislation; the analogy follows for all other criteria involved in hiring.

              Conceptualize their bigotry as a cost. This bigot would be willing to pay $X dollars/hour to not surround himself with minorities. He would be indifferent between the two applicants when the labor costs are: Minority Wage + X = White Wage. Alternatively, Minority Wage = White Wage – X. If you mandate that the wages be equal, he will hire relatively fewer minorities because of the cost of his bigotry. The more bigoted he is, the fewer minorities he will hire, at any wage. This is intuitive, yes?

              I make no claims about rationality except that demand curves slope downwards. If you make something more expensive, less is demanded. If you reject this, then no, we won’t have a productive conversation.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Austin Middleton says:

      Oh Lordy.  Incentivizing.   The relentless gerundification of our once-beautiful language disturbs me greatly.

      Now here’s how it worked out in the real world.   You don’t have to be an overt bigot to hire the white guy.   People don’t think they’re bigots when they’re in a hiring situation, their shoe is pinching, they need to hire someone, one resume drifts up to the top of the pile and that guy gets hired.   The white guy seems to be a better fit.   People get hired for many reasons, not always on their qualifications.   The equally-qualified black guy is the victim of racism, but if you did a post-mortem on that hiring process, the hirer simply chose some he liked better.   Someone like him.  A white guy.  Put it this way, the guy named Rashid and the guy named Ron are not operating on the same level playing field.

      That’s why quotas were enacted.   Nobody wanted to hire the black guy.   Or the woman.   Or the cripple.

      And don’t get me started on labor costs.  If I hire someone and expend time and effort on getting him on board, the last thing I want is for that guy to run off when a better-paying job opens up.   I’m going to pay him very well and expect a lot out of him because people rise to the level of expectations.   They like challenges and it gives people great satisfaction to do a good job and I’ll probably give him a nice raise if he works out.

      Costco pays its workers about twice what Walmart pays and they provide insurance.   The Costco workers don’t steal as much stuff as the Walmart worker bees and there’s a lot less turnover at Costco.  You’ve got it exactly backward:  anyone who’s driven by the equations you put forth is operating in bad faith with his employees and will soon be out of business.


      • Avatar wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

        Blaise, I think it is entirely likely that both you and Austin are correct.

        Here’s how it worked in /my/ real world. I had a company with about 20 employees. By happenstance and over time 50% of my employees were minorities. Eventually I landed a VP of Sales who was fishing fantastic, and happened to be black. Almost immediately we had several long term customers of respectable, (dare I say progressive?) companies decide they no longer needed our services. But did I mention he was fantastic? The business we lost was immediately replaced in spades (I smirk at anyone who chooses to read this word as racist). I never connected the dots. Only years after I’d sold the company (another story there the 2500+ person corp that bought us had their VP of HR call me to complain that I was “making them look bad” by having more minorities working for my little division than they had in the rest of the company!) did I discover what had been happening. By chance at a fundraiser I found myself talking with the wife of a doctor who was a partner in the large radiology practice who had previously been our customer. She told me how her husband came home one day, furious that his “salesman” was now black. She told me because she wanted to get a dig in on her husband, but all I could think at the time was that if I’d known beforehand that he was such a racist asshole I’d have happily fired him as a client long before.

        Bubba’s Radiators may well be able to survive for decades selling to other Bubbas and being racist insensitive jerks. When the HR VP had called me to complain about making them look bad, I pulled out my calendar and worked out how many more days I was obligated to work for them by my employment contract that had been part of the sale. Three weeks to the day before my stock options would have vested I handed in my resignation. Theoretically I left a lot of money on the table but long term I knew those guys were toast, and they were.

        White people are the minority on this planet, by a long shot. An inclusive heterogeneous population in the only reality going forward, there are certain to be those who don’t “get it” but they’ll die off. The best we as whites can hope for is to remain part of the ongoing genetic makeup of the human race. We are an anomaly of climatic conditions in northern Europe. Living as far north as our ancestors did, we needed minimal melanin to have a fighting chance to absorb enough sunlight to synthesize vitamin D. Evolutionarily we had one thing going for us, the ability to plan long term. Our ancestors who didn’t plan well enough didn’t survive the long winters. One good thing about planning is that a fool with a plan can beat a genius without one.Report

      • Avatar Austin Middleton in reply to BlaiseP says:


        In the event you are correct and it is true that “anyone who’s driven by the equations you put forth is operating in bad faith with his employees and will soon be out of business”, then the wage and quota legislation is redundant and needless.

        Will people hire minorities and pay them equally? Great, fantastic! So what’s the point of telling them not to do something they aren’t going to choose to do?Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Austin Middleton says:

          Please do not put words in my mouth or extrapolate points I did not make.   In the shiny happy world which you propose, bigots could go on being bigots and wage slavery would be fact accompli and there would be no repercussions.  Is this what you really propose?Report

          • Avatar BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:

            But BP!  There will be fewer blacks in jail because they will all get jobs working for $2 an hour and all will be solved!



            Your premise assumes that bigotry is rational when, oftentimes, it is inherently not.  Companies that refuse to hire black people (or women or gays or Latino’s or whatever group they are bigoted against) do themselves a disservice by limiting the pool of workers they can pull from.  Perhaps they make a concious decision and say, “I’m willing to sacrifice $X in order to work with only certain types of people,” but more often than not, their emotional side (the bigoted side) is overwhelming their rational side.

            With equal salaries, you claim that the bigot will hire only whites because there is no economic benefit to hiring blacks.  But there IS an economic benefit to not leading a racist company.  If money trumped racism, as you claim, than companies would not be pursuing racist hiring policies in the first place.  The money they lose from an all-white staff of equally paid people far outweighs the money they save by hiring blacks at lower wages.Report

            • Avatar Austin Middleton in reply to BSK says:


              I like how you use “words in my mouth” and “shiny happy world” in concurrent sentences. If you would, please cite where I have once advocated for bigotry, once sought to reduce the average wage of minorities, once desired the institutionalizing (there I go gerunding again!) of minority populations.

              “Is this what you really propose?” You and I want the same thing, I simply disagree with you on the unintended consequences of this interventionalist legislation. Shall I be pilloried for this?



              I make no assumptions of rational bigotry. I simply represent bigotry as a cost to the bigot. How big of a leap is it to go from, “I don’t want to work with minorities” to “I would pay $X to not work with minorities”? Consider an analogue: “I want organic produce” / “I am willing to pay $0.25 more for an organic apple”. Its a model of preferences. If bigotry applies an additional cost to the wage of minorities, fewer minorities are demanded. The irrational bigotry gets internalized.

              I agree that there is an economic benefit to non-racist hiring policies, but that wage legislation and quotas dull those benefits and slow the pace of progress.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Austin Middleton says:

                First, you’re not advocating for bigotry.   Let’s get that straight.   As Madison famously said about this situation in Federalist 51, which nobody ever quotes in context.

                The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

                This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public…

                Can you stipulate to Defective Motives in the bigot?   I suppose you can.   Where do we go from there?Report

              • Avatar Austin Middleton in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The bigot has defective motives, check. Federalist 51 acknowledges this, and suggests arrangements such that his private motives shall not sully the public arena. Throughout, Madison restrains himself to the curtailing of public abuses of authority derived from private motives.

                In this way, Title I of the Civil Rights Act curbs the bigoted motives of the population from abusing public power as regards voter registration requirements.

                Title VII, on the other hand, seems to allow the regulation of private abuse (if we assume that indulging your preferences within the bounds of your own property constitutes abuse).

                Because he restrains himself to the abuses of public power in 51, I can see Madison applauding the first, while not the second.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Austin Middleton says:

                So, you’re saying the private employer can hang up a Whites Only sign on his storefront?

                I mean, really, that’s what you’re implying.


              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                It seems to me that the employer doesn’t have to.

                He can put up a sign that says “we comply with all Federal Hiring laws!”, take in resumes from everybody, give interviews to half of those people, and then hire the White Guy anyway.

                And, more to his point, THIS IS HAPPENING ALL THE FREAKIN TIME NOW.

                (Note: description of a phenomenon is not endorsement of said phenomenon.)

                Perhaps it would be more interesting to discuss the wording of a Federal Law that would change this.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Blaise, I’m certain Austin is no bigot, I respect him for thinking outside the box here and you should also. The “bigot” who happens to not be hiring minorities has perfect plausible deniability as AM put it in his first post here. Actually re-reading a bit, I see he’s mostly paraphrasing from a book he’s read from someone named Williams.

                The bigger picture idea is more important than the quibbles about whether the thesis perfectly fits reality. Like analog to digital conversions, reality is never cooperative to logical bindings.

                Brought to the 30,000 foot level, do well-intentioned government regulations have unintended and often deleterious consequences? I think we all know that answer to that one.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I haven’t said he’s a bigot.   But insofar as someone can behave like a bigot and can get away with it, does the government have a role in correcting these Deficient Motives?   I think it does.Report

              • Avatar BSK in reply to BlaiseP says:


                That is why I’m rarely sympathetic to the Paul/libertarian argument that the market would better correct for such discrimination.

                Not only does this go on in spite of the laws, but people are aware of it, even if only tacitly, and rarely use “market forces” to effect change.  Which might say something about how much we REALLY care about this issue.

                When Lowe’s was caught up in the “All-American Muslim” flap, I went out of my way to return some recently purchases items to them because I was uncomfortable of their handling of the situation.  When I was at the return desk and the clerk asked why I was returning, I chickened out and simply said, “I changed my mind,” despite having originally intended to politely inform them that I wasn’t comfortable with the situation in question.  And I’m someone who likes to think I care A LOT about these issues.  And that is all I could muster.  And is the first time I’ve consciously taken a “stand” like that.

                I understand the logic of the argument and, ideally, it would work.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world and are left with a variety of less-than-ideal solutions.  And I don’t know of a better one…Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Let’s say we pass a law and things get worse.

                Is saying “well, things would have gotten even worse if we didn’t pass a law” a good foundation from which to accuse others of racism when they complain about the law?Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to BlaiseP says:

                When we’re asked to envision what might happen, we have the past as a perfectly good point from which to dead reckon.   Columbus was perhaps the best dead-reckoning sailor in Europe, armed only with a primitive sextant and a compass, he made it back to the New World within a few miles of where he’d landed on his first journey.

                But he died, still thinking he’d discovered India.

                And all these begged questions about Title VII are equally deluded.

                Folks, when an outfit won’t hire any minority candidates, there’s a big problem afoot.   Until they’re taken to court, repeatedly, they find every excuse in the book to keep on with their bigoted practices.   Again, I really must return y’all to Madison and the Angels.   Until the bigots are given a kick, where it hurts, they won’t act.   Had they simply gone ahead and hired a few blacks, quotas would not have been imposed on them.   They didn’t, so it was quotas or nothing.   I don’t want any more begged questions about Title VII, the bigots had to be steamrollered into accepting any minority candidates.


              • Avatar BSK in reply to Austin Middleton says:


                Businesses can still discriminate with wages.  They just have to pay fines and incur the costs of doing so, which do NOT include jail time or mandatory shuttering of the business.  So, the option is still there.

                Your argument might work in a lab experiment but simply does not hold up to real world scrutiny.

                Another point you have not addressed: Many of these black men have their first run in with the law long before they enter the professional work force.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird in reply to BSK says:

                Yeah, just put a couple of boxes on the application that ask “have you ever been arrested” and “were you found guilty/did you plea guilty as part of a plea bargain” and you could engage in some “racism without racists” sorting before you even started phoning people.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Jaybird says:

                Jay, you don’t even need a box, as long as they self-select with ethnic sounding names. Kayesha just doesn’t seem to have her phone ringing off the hook with job offers compared to Kathy.Report

              • Avatar Austin Middleton in reply to BSK says:

                Of course the option to discriminate is still there: you can’t legislate away personal preferences. I simply suggest that businesses discriminate in a more harmful way by not hiring, which is more damaging than it otherwise would be. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand how this fails scrutiny: I suggest fewer minorities are hired, and more end up in prison. Isn’t that the phenomenon we’re discussing?

                Re: youth crime. Controlling for geographical location and income the crime rates for children of non-nuclear families are remarkably similar. Combine that with higher incarceration rates of adult black males and a lower rate of non-nuclear family structure yields a higher probability for a black youth to have a run-in with the law before he reaches the age of majority. I am not asserting causation, merely noting the correlation. However, the relative prices of larceny and honesty for adults may be reflected in the realities faced by children.

                Alternatively, cities are concentrations of wealth and population where the black demographic tends to live more relative to white populations. Because of this concentration of wealth, larceny becomes relatively more profitable, and therefore you would expect to see greater spending on security. A greater presence of security in the cities relative rural areas may lead to more apprehensions. Thus, more frequent contact between the police and the urban youth. (The urban youth being incentivized to larceny through the concentration of wealth, and similarly more likely to be caught.)

                Or perhaps neither of those. What do you suggest?


                Also, while engaging, I shall, in a respectful manner, bow out of this thread, it having consumed more time than I can afford. I hope that though I may not have convinced anyone, my suggestion that instead of our country becoming institutionally more racist and bigoted, there exists an alternative explanation to the burgeoning minority prison population. It would, in this way, be more optimistic to think that people are reacting to unintended incentives created by well-meant legislation, than to believe that Evil holds greater sway over our society. At very least, as Cromwell said, “I beseech the, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” I shall promise to do the same.

                Regards to all,

                Austin MiddletonReport

              • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Austin Middleton says:

                Thanks for visiting Austin and please come back. I for one am always happy to entertain heretofore unanticipated viewpoints, their “rightness” or “wrongness” are not as important as their ability to bring a new perspective to the conversation as you did most eloquently.Report

              • Avatar grumpy realist in reply to Austin Middleton says:

                There’s also the self-replicating aspect:  stuff that is done by middle-class white teenagers is blown off as “boys will be boys”, while similar activity done by black youths ends up with a criminal record.  Which then snowballs if a company has a “policy” to not hire people with criminal records…

                The US still hasn’t made up its mind whether prison is supposed to be for punishment or rehabilitation, which just adds to the mess of contradictory policies we have about juvenile and adult records, voting rights, etc.


  12. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I just got done reading this article yesterday (I’m always behind in finishing the New Yorker). This part stood out for me:

    “No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:
    Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

    Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.”

    I wanted to know what Tim Kowal thinks of the article because he wrote that fascinating piece about the prison guard unions.Report