4 minute read

Race and Crime

Data Sources And Meaning

There are two main sources of crime-related data that are typically analyzed to support the various race/crime explanations: the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Crime Victims Survey (NCVS). Each tells us something slightly different about crime and its relationship to race. The UCR are prepared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation from official police department statistics, and therefore vary in reliability and validity depending on the type of crime (data are generally better for serious street crimes and violent crime). The UCR necessarily exclude all unreported crime (the "dark figure of crime") and crime not typically addressed by law enforcement, particularly white collar, corporate, and governmental crimes (Walker, Spohn, and DeLone). Analysis of the UCR tells much about police behavior while variously underestimating the amount of most crime types.

In general, the UCR demonstrate that racial minorities are much more likely to be arrested compared to whites, and other criminal justice data clearly demonstrate disproportionate representation in each successive part of the criminal justice system. Indeed, near the close of the 1990s, African Americans constituted 12 percent of the U.S. population yet 32 percent of those arrested for property crimes and 41 percent for violent crimes. The greatest disproportionality among Part 1 or Index crimes were for murder/non-negligent manslaughter and robbery, where African Americans account for 56 percent and 57 percent of all arrests, respectively. Two less serious offenses (included in the UCR as Part 2 crimes) for which African Americans are particularly overrepresented among arrestees are gambling (67 percent) and vagrancy (46 percent), both highly associated with poverty (U.S. Department of Justice, 1998). The UCR does not detail any rates for Hispanics (Walker et al.).

Studies of the relationship between race and criminal sentencing have produced conflicting results (Walker et al.). While racial minorities tend to receive longer sentences overall compared to whites, these differences are usually explainable by factors such as prior record and seriousness of the offense. The argument has been made, however, that such indicators were themselves the result of racial discrimination on the part of the police, judges, and juries, thus leading to a greater likelihood of an African American or Hispanic defendant having a longer prior record, or that the socioeconomic position of most minorities increases the likelihood of committing an offense considered more serious by the courts. Regardless of the possible explanations, it is clear that the end result of the court process was the increasingly disproportionate incarceration of racial minorities in U.S. jails and prisons throughout the twentieth century (Irwin and Austin; Walker et al.).

Prisons throughout the nation are disproportionately occupied by African Americans and Hispanics. Although these trends hold true across most geographical areas, the rates of disproportionality tend to be higher in the South and in state correctional systems (Irwin and Austin). Indeed, African Americans represent 38 percent of inmates in federal prisons and 55 percent of those in state prison systems. Hispanics represent 28 percent and 17 percent of federal and state correctional populations, respectively (U.S. Department of Justice, 1999).

The second major source of crime data is the NCVS, administered by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By sampling the general population about criminal victimization, the NCVS is able to uncover unreported crimes and describe the characteristics and relationships between victims and offenders. Overall, while the NCVS also indicates disproportionate involvement of racial minorities in street crime, the gap between minorities and whites is typically smaller than is apparent in the UCR (Walker et al.). African Americans account for 52 percent of all personal victimizations, including 49 percent of all violent crimes (excluding homicide, which is not determined by the NCVS). Hispanics account for nearly 49 percent of all victimizations, including 43 percent of violence. Although the vast majority of most crimes are committed intraracially (that is, white on white or black on black), respondents in the NCVS perceived that only 25 percent of violent offenders were African American (Bureau of Justice Statistics). These data, together with the much higher arrest rates of minorities for violent crimes, suggest that minorities probably commit fewer crimes than their arrest rates would suggest but are disproportionately caught and punished for the crimes they do commit.

Finally, one major explanatory factor that must be taken into consideration when studying disproportionate minority representation in crime is the socioeconomic status of minorities in American society. Despite legislative and judicial decisions over the past several decades, African Americans and other racial minorities remain as much or more residentially segregated at the turn of the millennium as before the monumental changes in the 1950s and 1960s (Massey and Denton). The ghetto experience is typical for most African Americans, including the entrenched poverty, unemployment, poor schools, and lack of social opportunities that are associated with such transitional and "disorganized" neighborhoods (Hagan; Wilson). Indeed, the various inequalities that exist within ghetto communities have been linked to numerous crimes, particularly homicide (Kovandzic, Vieraitis, and Yeisley).

Combined, these sources indicate that racial minorities (particularly African Americans and Hispanics) are disproportionately involved in street crime, victimized by street crime, and brought under the control and supervision of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, street crimes are more characteristic of impoverished, inner city, and ghetto neighborhoods; and occur more often among the nonemployed, young, and male. These same groups also appear to be more likely to penetrate deeper into the criminal justice system, with racial disproportionality increasing at each successive step into the system.

There is a near complete absence of valid or reliable white-collar, corporate, and governmental crime statistics in the UCR and NCVS measurements. This is an extremely important void when considering the relationship between race and crime, because by even the most conservative estimates street crimes account for only a fraction of all crimes. Nonetheless, American media, politicians, public, and even criminologists tend to focus on street crime, thereby dramatizing and potentially exaggerating the real racial over-representations of racial minorities in crime and the criminal justice system.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRace and Crime - Data Sources And Meaning, The Nature And Direction Of The Race And Crime Relationship, Bio-psychological Theory - Conclusion