If you kill someone, whether the criminal justice system throws you in prison may come down to your race.
That’s the takeaway from a recent report by Daniel Lathrop and Anna Flagg at the Marshall Project. They looked at federal data to analyze the circumstances in which a homicide was deemed “justifiable” by police. Their findings were astounding:
In almost 17 percent of cases when a black man was killed by a non-Hispanic white civilian over the last three decades, the killing was categorized as justifiable, which is the term used when a police officer or a civilian kills someone committing a crime or in self-defense. Overall, the police classify fewer than 2 percent of homicides committed by civilians as justifiable. …
In comparison, when Hispanics killed black men, about 5.5 percent of cases were called justifiable. When whites killed Hispanics, it was 3.1 percent. When blacks killed whites, the figure was just 0.8 percent. When black males were killed by other blacks, the figure was about 2 percent, the same as the overall rate.
The racial disparity held up after controlling for different circumstances. When they adjusted for how well the killer and victim knew each other and how the victim was killed, white-on-black-men homicides were two to 10 times as likely to be called “justifiable.” And when controlling for age in addition to those other factors, white-on-black-men homicides remained 4.7 times as likely to be called “justifiable” as other cases. The disparity also seemed to hold up across the country, according to the report.
One caveat: The data used by the Marshall Project is incomplete, since not all police departments participate in the FBI database used for the analysis. Still, the Marshall Project looked at 400,000 cases dating from 1980 through 2014 — a large pool of data.
It’s also possible that the findings aren’t explained solely by racism. The Marshall Project points to another study: “If, for instance, white-on-black homicides were mainly defensive shootings in a residence or business, and black-on-white shootings mainly occurred during the commission of a street crime, then the [racial] disparity would be warranted,” researcher John Roman wrote in a 2013 Urban Institute study of justifiable homicides.
But this is far from the only racial disparity in the criminal justice system, with similar findings existing at practically every level. Based on nationwide data collected by the Guardian, police in 2016 killed black Americans at a rate of 6.66 per 1 million people, compared to 2.9 per 1 million for white Americans. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, black people are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white people. And according to a 2012 report from the US Sentencing Commission, black people often receive harsher sentences than white people for the same crime; for example, drug trafficking sentences for black men were 13.1 percent longer than those for white men between 2007 and 2009.
The list could go on. From the harshness of speeding tickets to punishments for car crashes to arrests for drug crimes to clearance rates for murder investigations, racial disparities permeate the criminal justice system.
Higher crime rates in black communities do not fully explain these differences. A review of the research by the Sentencing Project concluded that throughout various time periods in the past few decades, the higher crime rates in black communities only explained about 61 to 80 percent of black overrepresentation in prisons. And another study, from 2015, by researcher Cody Ross found “[t]here is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates), meaning that the racial bias observed in police shootings in this data set is not explainable as a response to local-level crime rates.”
The Marshall Project, for its part, said that racial biases may explain the difference found in justifiable homicides.
Several studies have found that race plays a powerful role in how the general public — and, by extension, those in the criminal justice system — see people. A recent series of studies published by the American Psychological Association, for example, found that people are more likely to see black men as larger and more threatening than white men, even if the black men are not actually larger. Another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014 found that people are more likely to view black children 10 years and older as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts.
That helps explain how we got to a point where a person’s skin color seems to decide, at least in part, whether a homicide is deemed okay by the police.
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