All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1995

Crime and Race

Blacks Are the Worst Victims of Our Crime Epidemic

Professor Reiland teaches economics at Robert Morris College and has been published in National Minority Politics, Barron’s, and USA Today.

The tragic murder last year of Polly Klaas, a suburban white child forcibly taken from her bedroom by a career criminal, created a national uproar. Her accused assailant, Richard Allen Davis, had been released from prison two months earlier, after serving only half of his sentence for a prior kidnapping.

The Polly Klaas case isn’t unique. A recent study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on early release practices in 36 states and the District of Columbia shows violent offenders serve only 37 percent of their imposed sentences. The average time served for murder is 5.5 years (in California, it’s 41 months). For robbery, it’s 2.2 years, and 1.3 years for assault. And government statistics show that the majority of early release violent offenders are rearrested for new crimes within three years, one-third of them for new violent crimes.

However, there’s not the same national outrage when the victim is poor and black. “All the murders of inner-city black children at the hands of plea-bargained violent predators elicit no such political response,” says John J. Dilulio, Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

In fact, no group suffers more from lenient early release practices than America’s black community. “He would be alive today if the legal system worked the way it should,” said Hubert Stone, Sheriff of Robeson County, N.C. Sheriff Stone was talking to Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bull’s basketball star, as he buried his father. The two 18-year-olds charged in the killing had long criminal histories at the time of the murder. Larry Demery, out on bail, was awaiting trial for bashing Mrs. Wilma Dial, a 61-year-old convenience store clerk, in the head with a concrete block during a robbery, causing a brain hemorrhage and fracturing her skull. Daniel Green was on parole after serving only two years of a six-year sentence for attempting to kill Robert Ellison by smashing him in the head with an ax and putting him in a coma for three months.

A black person is murdered in the United States every 42 minutes. The FBI’s current Uniform Crime Report shows that blacks, 12 percent of the population, account for over half of all murder victims (with 95 percent being killed by blacks). “We would riot if whites killed this many blacks,” says Issac Fulwood, former Chief of Police in Washington, D.C.

In Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, blacks make up 11 percent of the population and accounted for 74 percent of the homicide victims in 1993 and 65 percent in 1994. Young black males, less than 1 percent of Allegheny County’s population, account for nearly one-third of the murder victims. “For a 15-year-old black male in Allegheny County—and there are only about 1,000—the chances of being a homicide victim, most likely from a gun, before reaching the age of 25 are about 1 in 32,” reports The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The chances, by contrast, for a white 15-year-old male are 1 in 1,000.

Federal Judge Frank Easterbrook links the epidemic of crime to the fact that many people figure they can get away with it. “If you raise the price of rutabagas, people will buy fewer rutabagas,” he says. In a recent Commentary article, James Q. Wilson, Professor of Public Policy at UCLA, states: “The probability of being arrested for a given crime is lower today than it was in 1974. The amount of time served in state prison has been declining more or less steadily since the 1940s. Taking all crime together, time served fell from 25 months in 1945 to 13 months in 1984.”

Alone, the criminal justice system can’t be expected to get to the root of America’s crime epidemic. It’s just the last stop along a continuum of social problems. “Street crime cannot be solved by the police, the courts, or prisons,” writes Judge David Bazelon of the D.C. Court of Appeals. “Those institutions act as mere janitors, tidying up the wreckage that happens to end up in the courtroom.”

The roots of crime are more basic. “We no longer live nobly,” says novelist John Updike. What we’re witnessing is an extensive cultural decline and, unfortunately, much of the social regression seems impervious to government spending. Since 1960, with a population increase of 41 percent, government spending on welfare and education increased by 630 percent and 225 percent respectively (in real terms, adjusted for inflation). In the same 30-year period, SATs fell by 80 points and violent crime increased by 560 percent.

Still, the vast majority of Americans think Daniel Green and Richard Allen Davis should have been in jail on the nights that Jordan and Klaas were killed. A recent Parade magazine survey shows that 92 percent of the public wants repeat serious offenders to serve all of their sentences without being paroled, “By requiring criminals to serve at least 85 percent of their sentenced time, we could prevent 4,400,000 violent crimes annually, nearly three-quarters of the total violent crimes committed,” states James Wootton, President of the Safe Streets Alliance in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of blacks are very conservative about crime and that has to do with the fact that many of them are victims,” says the Reverend Al Sharpton in a New York Post interview. In a recent Gallup survey, 74 percent of black respondents said parole should be more difficult to get, and 67 percent said youth offenders should be treated the same as adults.

Government experts and academics will debate about crime, and be well paid for it. Conservatives oppose judicial restraints on the police and courthouse mollycoddling. Liberals focus on racism and guns. Both worry about the impact of violent movies. Meanwhile, as the arguments continue and the grant money flows, the number of black males being killed every year is higher than the total number of black soldiers killed in the bloodiest decade of the Vietnam War.

It is time we remembered that, of all groups, it is blacks who are the worst victims of our crime epidemic. And it is time for us to understand that leniency toward criminals actually harms blacks the most.

  • Ralph R. Reiland is an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University and a columnist with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.