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The relationship between race and crime in the United States has been a topic of public controversy and scholarly debate for more than a century. Since the 1980s, the debate has centered around the causes of and contributing factors to the disproportional representation of racial minorities (primarily African Americans, hence "Black crime") at all stages of the criminal justice system, including arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations. Minority defendants are charged with and convicted of violent crimes requiring a mandatory minimum prison sentence far more often, leading to large racial disparities in incarceration.
The racial composition of the US population as of 2008 was 79.79% European American (65.60% non-Hispanic and 14.19% Hispanic), 12.84% African American (12.22% non-Hispanic and 0.62% Hispanic), 4.45% Asian American (4.35% non-Hispanic and 0.10% Hispanic), 1.01% Native American or Alaska Native (0.76% non-Hispanic and 0.25% Hispanic), 0.18% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander American (0.14% non-Hispanic and 0.04% Hispanic), and 1.69% Multiracial American (1.64% non-Hispanic and 0.05% Hispanic). 15.25% of the total US population identified their ethnicity as Hispanic.
Historically, crime statistics have played a central role in the discussion of the relationship between race and crime in the United States. As they have been designed to record information not only on the kinds of crimes committed, but also on the individuals involved in crime, criminologists and sociologists have and continue to use crime rate statistics to make general statements regarding the racial demographics of crime-related phenomena such as victimization, arrests, prosecutions, convictions, and incarceration. Regardless of their views regarding causation, scholars acknowledge that some racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the arrest and victimization reports which are used to compile crime rate statistics. There is, however, a great deal of debate regarding the causes of that disproportionality.
In the United States, crime data is collected from three major sources: law enforcement agency crime reports, collected monthly by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and processed annually as Uniform Crime Reports (UCR); victimization surveys, collected biannually by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and processed annually in the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS); and self-report surveys.[further explanation needed] The UCR represents the primary source of data used in the calculation of official statistics regarding serious crimes such as murder and homicide, which is supplemented by the information provided through the NCVS and self-report studies, the latter being the best indicator of actual crime rates for minor offenses such as illegal substance abuse and petty theft. These crime data collection programs provide most of the statistical information utilized by criminologists and sociologist in their analysis of crime and the extent of its relationship to race. Another form of data is that regarding the prison population.
The Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) program, established in 1927, is a summary-based reporting system that collects data on crime reported to local and state law enforcement agencies across the United States. The UCR system indexes crimes under two headings: Part I and Part II offenses. Part I offenses include: murder and non-negligent homicide; non-lethal violent crimes comprising robbery, forcible rape and aggravated assault; and property crimes comprising burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft and arson. Part II offenses include fraud, forgery/counterfeiting, embezzlement, simple assault, sex offenses, offenses against the family, drug and liquor offenses, weapons offenses and other non-violent offenses excluding traffic violations.
There are fundamental limitations of the UCR system, including:
As a response to these and other limitations, a new system of crime data collection was established in 1988 as an outgrowth of the UCR system. The National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) is an incident-based reporting system that will collect more comprehensive and detailed data on crime from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. As it is still under development, NIBRS coverage is not yet nationwide.
The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) program, established in 1972, is a national survey of a representative sample of households in the United States which covers the frequency of crime victimization and the characteristics and consequences of victimization. The primary purpose behind the NCVS program is to gather information on crimes that were not reported to police, though information is also collected on reported crimes. The survey collects data on rape, assault, robbery, burglary, personal and household larceny and motor vehicle theft. The NCVS also includes supplemental questions which allow information to be gathered on tangentially relevant issues such as school violence, attitudes towards law enforcement or perceptions regarding crime.
There are fundamental limitations to the NCVS program, including:
According to the NCVS for 1992-2000, 43% of violent criminal acts, and 53% of serious violent crime (not verbal threats, or cuts and bruises) were reported to the police. Overall, black (49%) and American Indian (48%) victims reported most often, significantly higher than whites (42%) and Asians (40%). Serious violent crime and aggravated assault against blacks (58% and 61%) and Indians (55% and 59%) was reported more often than against whites (51% and 54%) or Asians (50% and 51%). American Indians were unusually unlikely to report a robbery (45%), as with Asians and a simple assault (31%).
Despite the differences in the amount of crime reported, comparisons of the UCR and NCVS data sets show there to be a high degree of correspondence between the two systems. This correspondence extends to the racial demography of both perpetrators and victims of violent crime reported in both systems.
The UCR classifies most Hispanics into the "white" category. The NCVS classifies some Hispanic criminals as "white" and some as "other race". The victim categories for the NCVS are more distinct.
In a 2004 United States Department of Justice report which analyzed carjacking trends over the previous decade, carjacking victims identified 56% of the offenders as black, 21% as white, and 16% as members of other races.
Also published by the federal government is the Known Offender's Race by Bias Motivation, 2009. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report database, in 2010 58% of hate crime offenders were white (including latinos), 18% of offenders were black, 8.9% were of individuals of multiple races and 1% of offenders were Native Americans. The report also reveals that 48% of all hate crime offenders were motivated by the victim's race, while 18% were based on the victim's religion, and another 18% were based on the victim's sexual orientation. The report states that among hate crime offenses motivated by race, 70% were composed of anti-black bias, while 17.7% were of anti-white bias, and 5% were of anti-Asian or Pacific Islander bias.
According to a 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2007 Latinos "accounted for 40% of all sentenced federal offenders-more than triple their share (13%) of the total U.S. adult population". This was an increase from 24% in 1991. 72% of the Latino offenders were not U.S. citizens. For Hispanic offenders sentenced in federal courts, 48% were immigration offenses and 37% drug offenses. One reason for the large increase in immigration offenses is that they exclusively fall under federal jurisdiction.
Some studies had argued for smaller racial disparities in violent crime in recent times. However, a 2011 study which examined the racial disparities in violent crime and incarceration from 1980 and 2008 found little difference for black share of violent offending. Racial imbalances between arrest rates and sentencing have caused some to question the disparities. The authors argued that the prior studies had been confounded by not separating Hispanics from Whites. The number of Hispanic offenders has been increasing rapidly and have violence rates higher than that of Whites but lower than that of Blacks. Another recent study in 2012 counters this by revealing that even when Hispanic whites are separated from non-Hispanic whites in calculating sentencing rates per arrest and conviction, Hispanics and blacks still receive considerably longer sentences for the same or lesser offenses per average than white offenders with equal or greater criminal records.
The "National Youth Gang Survey Analysis" (2009) state that of gang members, 49% are Hispanic/Latino, 35% are African-American/black, 9% are white, and 7% are other race/ethnicity.
According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) non-Hispanic blacks accounted for 39.4% of the prison and jail population in 2009. Hispanics (of all races) were 15.9% of those incarcerated in 2009. Hispanics comprised 16.3% of the US population according to the 2010 US census. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2000 to 2008 the rate of prevalence of incarceration for blacks declined to 3,161 per 100,000 and the white rate slightly increase to 487 per 100,000. In 2009 American Indians and Alaskan Natives were jailed, paroled, or on probation at 932 per 100,000, 25% higher than for non-Indians/Natives (747), up 5.6% that year and 12% higher than 2007. However, crime in general declined during this time down to near 1970 levels, an 18% decrease from the previous decade. (US Imprisonment Rates by Race, Age, and Gender, 2011) "In 2011, imprisonment rates among age and racial groups tended to increase through age 34 before declining (table 8). The imprisonment rates indicate that about 0.5% of all white males, more than 3.0% of all black males, and 1.2% of all Hispanic males were imprisoned in 2011. Between 6.6% and 7.5% of all black males ages 25 to 39 were imprisoned in 2011, which were the highest imprisonment rates among the measured sex, race, Hispanic origin, and age groups. Slightly fewer than 3% of Hispanic males were imprisoned in each of the age cohorts between ages 25 and 39. "In 2011, blacks and Hispanics were imprisoned at higher rates than whites in all age groups for both male and female inmates. Among prisoners ages 18 to 19, black males were imprisoned at more than 9 times the rate of white males. In 2011, Hispanic and black male prisoners age 65 or older were imprisoned at rates between 3 and 5 times those of white males. Excluding the youngest and oldest age groups, black males were imprisoned at rates that ranged between 5 and 7 times the rates of white males. Among persons ages 20 to 24, black males were imprisoned at about 7 times that of white males. Among persons ages 60 to 64, the black male imprisonment rate was 5 times that of the white male imprisonment rate. In comparison, Hispanic males were imprisoned at 2 to 3 times the rate of white males in 2011. Black females were imprisoned at between 2 and 3 times the rate of white females, while Hispanic females were imprisoned at between 1 and 3 times the rate of white females."
Source: Carson, E. Ann, and Sabol, William J., "Prisoners in 2011" (Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, Dec. 2012), NCJ239808, p. 8. http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p11.pdf
For men in their early thirties, African-Americans are about half as likely to have a prison record than whites. They are less likely to have been in prison (8.4 percent) than in the military (3.2 percent). African Americans are given longer federal sentences often due to prior criminal records. African American jail sentences tend to be roughly 5% shorter than white jail sentences for the same crimes. Blacks are also enrolled in college than in prison. According to the US Census Bureau as of the year 2000 there were 2,224,181 blacks enrolled in college. In that same year there were only 610,300 black inmates in prison according to the Bureau of Justice. 12.5 percent have a bachelor’s degree. The results are highly dependent on education. 30 percent of those without college education and nearly 60 percent of high school dropouts had prison records.
Studies have examined if ethnic/racially heterogeneous areas, most often neighborhoods in large cities, have higher crime rates than more homogeneous areas. Most studies find that the more ethnically/racially heterogeneous an area is, the higher its crime rates tend to be.
Studies examining the relationship between percentages of different races in an area and crime rates have generally either found similar relationships as for nationwide crime rates or no significant relationships. Most often studied are correlations between black and Hispanic populations in a given area and crime. Such data may reveal a possible connection, but is functionally inconclusive due to a variety of other correlating factors which overlap with race and ethnicity. While there is a correlation between blacks and Hispanics and crime, the data implies a stronger tie between poverty and crime than crime and any racial group, when gender is taken into consideration. The direct correlation between crime and class, when factoring for race alone, is relatively weak. When gender, and familial history are factored, class correlates stronger with crime than race or ethnicity. Studies indicate that areas with low socioeconomic status may have the greatest correlation of crime with young and adult males, regardless of racial composition, though its effect on females is negligible.
As noted above, scholars acknowledge that some racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans, are disproportionately represented in the arrest and victimization reports which are used to compile crime rate statistics in the United States. The data from 2008 reveals that Black Americans are over-represented in terms of arrests made in virtually all types of crime, with the exceptions of "Driving under the influence" and "Liquor laws". Overall, Black Americans are arrested at 2.6 times the per-capita rate of all other Americans, and this ratio is even higher for murder (6.3 times) and robbery (8.1 times).
The relationship between race and crime has been an area of study for criminologists since the emergence of anthropological criminology in the late 19th century. Cesare Lombroso, founder of the Italian school of criminology, argued that criminal behavior was the product of biological factors, including race. He was among the first criminologists to claim a direct link between race and crime. This biological perspective, sometimes seen as racist and increasingly unpopular, was criticized by early 20th century scholars, including Frances Kellor, Johan Thorsten Sellin and William Du Bois, who argued that other circumstances, such as social and economic conditions, were the central factors which led to criminal behavior, regardless of race. Du Bois traced the causes of the disproportional representation of Blacks in the criminal justice system back to the improperly handled emancipation of Black slaves in general and the convict leasing program in particular. In 1901, he wrote:
There are no reliable statistics to which one can safely appeal to measure exactly the growth of crime among the emancipated slaves. About seventy per cent of all prisoners in the South are black; this, however, is in part explained by the fact that accused Negroes are still easily convicted and get long sentences, while whites still continue to escape the penalty of many crimes even among themselves. And yet allowing for all this, there can be no reasonable doubt but that there has arisen in the South since the [civil] war a class of black criminals, loafers, and ne'er-do-wells who are a menace to their fellows, both black and white.
The debate that ensued remained largely academic until the late 20th century, when the relationship between race and crime became a recognized field of specialized study in criminology. Helen T. Greene, professor of justice administration at Texas Southern University, and Shaun L. Gabbidon, professor of criminal justice at Pennsylvania State University, note that many criminology and criminal justice programs now either require or offer elective courses on the topic of the relationship between race and crime.
Sociologist Orlando Patterson has explained these controversies as disputes between liberal and conservative criminologists in which each camp focuses on mutually exclusive aspects of the causal net, with liberals focusing on factors external to the groups in question and conservatives focusing on internal cultural and behavioral factors.
Conflict theory is considered "one of the most popular theoretical frameworks among race and crime scholars". Rather than one monolithic theory, conflict theory represents a group of closely related theories which operate on a common set of fundamental assumptions. As a general theory of criminal behavior, conflict theory proposes that crime is an inevitable consequence of the conflict which arises between competing groups within society. Such groups can be defined through a number of factors, including class, economic status, religion, language, ethnicity, race or any combination thereof. Further, conflict theory proposes that crime could be largely eliminated if the structure of society were to be changed.
The form of conflict theory which emphasizes the role of economics, being heavily influenced by the work of Karl Marx and sometimes referred to as Marxist criminology, views crime as a natural response to the inequality arising from the competition inherent in capitalist society. Sociologists and criminologists emphasizing this aspect of social conflict argue that, in a competitive society in which there is an inequality in the distribution of goods, those groups with limited or restricted access to goods will be more likely to turn to crime. Dutch criminologist Willem Adrian Bonger, one of the first scholars to apply the principles of economic determinism to the issue of crime, argued that such inequality as found in capitalism was ultimately responsible for the manifestation of crime at all levels of society, particularly among the poor. Though this line of thinking has been criticized for requiring the establishment of a utopian socialist society, the notion that the disproportionality observed in minority representation in crime rate statistics could be understood as the result of systematic economic disadvantage found its way into many of the theories developed in subsequent generations.
Culture conflict theory, derived from the pioneering work of sociologist Thorsten Sellin, emphasizes the role of culturally accepted norms of conduct in the formation of cultural groups and the conflicts which arise through their interaction. Culture conflict theory argues that the group with the most power in any society ensures that their values, traditions and behaviors, which Sellin referred to as "conduct norms", are those to which all other members of society are forced to conform, and any actions which conflict with the interests of the dominant group are identified as deviant and/or criminal in nature. Sellin's original ideas continued to be developed throughout the 20th century, most notably by George Vold in the 1950s and Austin Turk in the 1960s, and continue to influence the contemporary debate. The recent work of Gregory J. Howard, Joshua D. Freilich and Graeme R. Newman applies culture conflict theory to the issue of immigrant and minority crime around the world. According to their research, while culturally homogeneous groups experience little to no cultural conflict, as all the members share the same set of "conduct norms", culturally heterogeneous groups, such as modern industrial nations with large immigrant populations, display heightened competition between sets of cultural norms which, in turn, leads to an increase in violence and crime. Societies which have high levels of cultural diversity in their population, it is claimed, are more likely to have higher rates of violent crime.
According to conflict theorists such as Marvin Wolfgang, Hubert Blalock and William Chambliss, the disproportionate representation of racial minorities in crime statistics and in the prison population is the result of race- and class-motivated disparities in arrests, prosecutions and sentencing rather than differences in actual participation in criminal activity, an approach which has also been taken by proponents of critical race theory. This line of argumentation is generally seen as part of a wider approach to race-related issues referred to as the Discrimination Thesis, which assumes that differences in the treatment received by people of minority racial background in a number of public institutions, including the criminal justice, education and health care systems, is the result of overt racial discrimination. Opposed to this view is the Non-Discrimination Thesis, which seeks to defend these institutions from such accusations.
At the time it was first proposed, conflict theory was considered outside the mainstream of more established criminological theories, such as strain theory, social disorganization theory and differential association theory. Barbara D. Warner, associate professor of criminal justice and police studies at Eastern Kentucky University, notes that conflict theory has been the subject of increasing criticism in recent years. Recent studies claim that, while there may have been real sentencing differences related to non-legal characteristics such as race in the 1960s, sentencing discrimination as described by the conflict theorists at that time no longer exists. Criticism has also pointed to the lack of testability of the general theory. While much research has been done to correlate race, income level and crime frequency, typically of less serious criminal behavior such as theft or larceny, research has shown there to be no significant correlation between race, income level and crime seriousness. Thus, conflict theory encounters difficulties in attempting to account for the high levels of violent crime such as murder, homicide and rape, in minority populations.
Strain theory, which is largely derived from the work of Robert K. Merton in the 1930s and 1940s, argues that social structures within society which lead to inequality and deprivation in segments of its population indirectly encourage those segments to commit crime. According to strain theory, differences in crime rates between races are the result of real differences in behavior, but to be understood as an attempt to alleviate either absolute or relative deprivation and adapt to the existing opportunity structure.
A more recent approach to strain theory was proposed by Steven F. Messner and Richard Rosenfeld in the 1990s. In their version of the theory, which they refer to as institutional anomie theory, Messner and Rosenfeld argue that the dominance of materialistic concerns and measurements of success manifested in the American Dream weakens the effectiveness of informal social control mechanisms and support processes, which encourages economic gain by any means, legal or illegal. In those segments of the population which experience the greatest relative deprivation, therefore, there is readiness to turn to crime to overcome inequality and eliminate relative deprivation.
Critics of strain theory point to its weaknesses when compared with actual criminal behavior patterns. Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi argue that strain theory "misconstrue(s) the nature of the criminal act, supplying it with virtues it does not possess." They further point out that, while strain theory suggests that criminals should tend to target people in a more advantageous economic situation than themselves, they more often victimize individuals who live in the same economic circumstances.
Social disorganization theory proposes that high rates of crime are largely the result of a heterogeneous and impoverished social ecology. Proponents of the theory point to the process of urban decay as a major contributing factor to the breakdown of healthy urban communities which would normally curb the spread of many forms of criminal behavior. The diversity of minority cultures present in poverty-stricken neighborhoods prevents the formation of strong social bonds and leaves inhabitants uninterested in maintaining positive community relationships. This has been observed to increase the likelihood of crime in certain urban areas, which can lead to increased policing and a further breakdown of familial structures as a result of arrests, which, in turn, precipitates more crime. Social disorganization theory has been instrumental in establishing the notion that stable, culturally homogeneous communities have lower rates of delinquency and crime regardless of race.
Phillippia Simmons reports that many of the studies which have investigated intra- and interracial crime seek to explain this through a theory of macrostructural opportunity which states that interracial violence is primarily a function of opportunity and access. According to this theory, intraracial crime rates remain relatively high due to the fact that much of the US remains residentially segregated. She notes that this theory predicts that, if residential areas were more racially integrated, intraracial crime would decrease and interracial crime would increase correspondingly. However, she also notes that not all researchers on the topic of intraracial crime agree with this result, with some pointing to other macrostructural factors, such as income and education, which may negate the effect of race on inter- and intraracial crime.
Anthony Walsh criticizes the attempt to use the macrostructural opportunity model to explain interracial rape as has been done in studies conducted in the past few decades, pointing out that such a defense is directly contradicted by the data related to homicide. Walsh argues that, while the macrostructural opportunity model helps explain why black murderers almost always choose black victims, it does not explain why black rapists choose white victims roughly 55% of the time. However, on the opposite side there is also an elevated incidence of white rapists choosing black victims. This theory has not been tested on this data. There are disparities in rates of reporting rape where victims of some races are statistically less likely or more likely to report their rape, especially depending on the race of the offender. Black women in America are more likely to report sexual assault that has been perpetrated by a stranger. White women are more likely to report the offense if the offender is black whereas black women are still more likely to under-report rapes overall as they are more likely to blame themselves, feel they will be blamed or feel they won't be believed.
Social control theory, which is among the most popular theories in criminology, proposes that crime is most commonly perpetrated by individuals who lack strong bonds or connections with their social environment. Based upon Travis Hirschi's Causes of Delinquency (1969), social bonding theory pioneered the notion that criminologists can gain useful insight into the motives behind criminal behavior by examining what normally motivates individuals to refrain from crime. From this it is argued that, in those segments of the population where such motivation is lacking, crime will be more prevalent. Hirshi was explicit in mentioning that he believed his theory held true across all racial boundaries, and subsequent research - both in the US and abroad - seems to confirm this belief. The core idea of social control theory is elaborated upon in several other theories of causation, particularly social disorganization theory.
As a theory of criminal behavior, subculture of violence theory claims that certain groups or subcultures exist in society in which violence is viewed as an appropriate response to what, in the context of that subculture, are perceived as threatening situations. Building upon the work of cultural anthropologist Walter B. Miller's focal concerns theory, which focused on the social mechanisms behind delinquency in adolescents, sociologists Marvin E. Wolfgang and Franco Ferracuti proposed that the disproportionally high rate of crime among African Americans could be explained by their possessing a unique racial subculture in which violence is experienced and perceived in a manner different from that commonly observed in mainstream American culture. However, this theory is largely disregarded as racist propaganda.
As to the origins of this subculture of violence among African Americans, sociologists promoting the theory have pointed towards their Southern heritage. As noted in several studies conducted throughout the 1960s and 1970s, there is a traditional North-South discrepancy in the distribution of homicide in the US, regardless of race, and this, it was argued, indicates that lower-class Southern Blacks and Whites share the same subculture of violence.
The empirical basis for the subculture of violence theory, however, has been described as "extremely limited and unpersuasive". Very little has been done to attempt an adequate assessment of supposedly criminogenic subcultural values, and several studies conducted in the late 1970s claimed to falsify the assumptions upon which the subculture of violence theory depends. More recently, scholars have criticized the theory as potentially racist in nature as it implies that all African Americans are violent.
Another theory proposes that racial inequality in the American criminal justice system is mostly caused by a racial imbalance in decisions to charge criminal defendants with crimes requiring a mandatory minimum prison sentence, leading to large racial disparities in incarceration. The majority of offenders incarcerated in America are incarcerated in state or local prisons or jails (only about 1 in 17 penal facilities is Federal) while this study deals with the Federal prosecution of offenders for Federal Offenses. The vast majority of criminal offenses and offenders in the United States are prosecuted by state and local prosecutors, not federal prosecutors. There are generally more classes of criminal offense at a federal level that will result in mandatory jail sentences. On a state level, most offenders will either have committed a violent offense or have multiple prior convictions before receiving lengthy incarceration sentences. State offenders are also more likely to be eligible for parole. Any findings related to federal prosecution charging decisions may or may not be born out by similar studies of state or local prosecutors. Similarly a study related to the relative parole rates of white and non-white offenders could assist in determining the impact of any racial bias in the criminal justice system.
One theory is that racial overrepresentation is due to police discrimination. However, various studies have shown that, in recent decades, there has not been any noticeable disparity in black vs white crime statistics in black-controlled vs white-controlled cities (say Atlanta vs San Diego). In the largest counties, the rates of conviction for accused blacks was slightly less than the conviction rates for whites, for example.
Heaton and Loeffler (2008) state that some scholars and studies have argued that police discrimination is not an important explanation for racial differences in crime. Others that it is the main cause. Some that both discrimination and different real crime rates contribute. The varying results can be explained to a large degree by the methods being uncertain with many possible confounding factors. As such they propose a method that they argue will remove all such observable and unobservable problems. They looked at the arrest rates for assault, robbery, and rape cases where the victims reported a black and white co-offending pair. They argue that differences in arrest rates should only reflect police bias. They found that the black offenders were 3% more likely to be arrested. Although this suggests some bias, it is insufficient to explain the large racial crime disparities.
The United States incarceration rate has increased dramatically in recent times. The deterrent and incapacitating effects of imprisonment, in particular regarding recidivism and the production of career criminals, continue to be debated.