Longer prison sentences for African-Americans have the characteristics of an epidemic

Sometimes the best way to grasp the real nature of a problem is to look at it from an unconventional angle. It appears that the U.S.’s incarceration rate imbalance — many more African-American than white inmates per capita — may be one of these issues.

Many reasons have been given for the “race gap” in American prisons, some of them quite extreme. On the right, there are whites who cling to the long-discredited notion that blacks are somehow categorically inferior in one or more crucial ways, from dedication to family values to intelligence. On the left, some activists and commentators have called the U.S. prison system a new kind of slavery, through which an entire cohort of the population is controlled and disenfranchised.

I have to say that, while I have no patience at all with the first analysis, I have some sympathy for the second. There’s too much history behind the “new slavery” interpretation to dismiss it entirely out of hand.

One well-known claim is that blacks are given longer sentences than whites for similar offenses. In this view, jail is much more likely for a young black crack smoker than for a middle-aged white cocaine snorter. Same drug, different sentences.

That’s the claim, but how accurate is it? And if it’s true, are there measureable effects of the different treatments blacks and white receive in the courts?

Here’s where the unconventional approach comes in.

Science magazine has reported a study that uses a computer simulation that was created to track the spread of infectious diseases to show that even relatively small differences in sentencing patterns can have wide effect, much wider than might be expected. It seems that, like the spread of disease, longer prison terms can reach a “tipping point” that accelerates the “infection” through the susceptible population.

There has long been an understanding that imprisoning one person makes the imprisonment of those close to the incarcerated person more likely:

They could be driven to crime by poverty or stress resulting from the jailed person’s absence, or become inured to violence through more frequent exposure to criminals. Children whose parents or older relatives are in prison may act out in ways that land them in jail, too. Even if the prisoner’s  friends and family don’t commit more crime, or more violent types of crime, they may attract more attention from the police and be more likely to be arrested for minor infractions.

Researchers used official demographic information from various U.S. agencies to generate 8,000 simulated citizens with 60,000 close contacts. They ran their simulation twice, once using the 14-month sentence the average white inmate received for drug possession, and the second time using the 17-month sentence given to the average black inmate. Length of sentence was the only variable. In all other ways, the groups in the two simulations were identical. In each test, 1% of the “population” was in jail, matching the actual rate of incarceration for the United States.

How much difference could a mere three months make? Quite a lot, it turned out.

In the first test, the simulation produced a drop in incarceration rates after five years, before leveling off at 0.725% after fifty years. In other words, the slightly-shorter sentence had little effect on incarceration rates. If anything, the shorter sentence modestly reduced the prison population.

But when the test was run the second time, with a 17-month sentence, there were dramatic differences. This time, incarceration rates rose steadily, reaching almost 3% of the population after 50 years of simulation.

In the second simulation,  the longer sentence clearly fell on the other side of the tipping point.

Running the models indefinitely, the shorter sentence leveled off at the 1% rate at which the test began. The longer sentence? Incarceration rates rose to 7%. And what’s the real-life difference in incarceration rates per capita between whites and blacks? Almost the same – 1% for whites, 6% for blacks.

That is, longer sentences for blacks, and longer sentences in general, may well be a factor not in reducing crime, as supporters contend, but in increasing it.

Talk about your unintended consequences – unless, of course, the leftists have it right, and imprisoning a goodly chunk of the minority population is the intended consequence.


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