Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Does Wisconsin Lock Up Too Many Blacks?

Our article is finally out.

In it, we challenge the notion that widespread racial discrimination is the reason for the fact that blacks are disproportionately imprisoned in Wisconsin.

Why are blacks disproportionately imprisoned? Because they commit more crimes.

Of course, we can’t rule out the possibility that, somewhere in the system, there is some racism. Of course, there may also be some racial affirmative action, with black offenders getting more lenient treatment. But on the whole, the prison population in Wisconsin looks about like the population of people who commit crimes.

Exhibit One: The Racial Disparity Index

Blacks, compared to whites, are much more likely to be locked up in Wisconsin. In fact, Wisconsin has one of the highest disparity ratios in the nation. But in reality, Wisconsin is about where it should be in relation to other states.

If one looks at disparity ratios, one finds that:

(1.) They are high were a large portion of the black population lives in the central cities of Metropolitan Statistical Areas. As blogger James Harris is fond of saying, “it’s the culture, stupid.” This is why the South has low disparity ratios.

(2.) They are higher where a large portion of the black population lives in poverty, and. . .

(3.) They are lower when a large portion of the white population lives in poverty (where more whites commit crimes, they drive down the disparity ratio).

When one creates a statistical model taking these factors into account, Wisconsin actually has a somewhat lower racial disparity index than one would expect.

Exhibit Two: Time Served in Prison

We looked at people released from prison in Wisconsin during the years 1998-2002. Are blacks kept in prison longer for the same offenses? We found that, controlling for gender, Hispanic ethnicity and having served a previous sentence, blacks served essentially the same sentence for a violent crime, but about five months less for a property crime. For a drug crime, black offenders served about 1.5 months less than a white would.

Exhibit Three: Prison Admissions

Using data from 1998-2002, we produced a statistical model of prison admission by county in Wisconsin as a function of the number of reported crimes. There was, of course, an absurdly strong relationship: more reported crimes meant more people thrown into prison.

We then added to the model the number of blacks in the population of each county. If blacks are disproportionately imprisoned, counties with a large number of blacks should show more prison admissions, even holding the number of crimes constant.

For property crimes, this indeed was the case, suggesting a bias against blacks where property crimes are concerned. But remember (see above) this is counterbalanced by the fact that blacks serve shorter sentences for property crimes.

Where violent crimes were concerned, more blacks in a county produced fewer prison admissions, even after controlling for the number of reported crimes. This suggests that black offenders get off a bit easier than whites.

Exhibit Four: Do “Less Qualified” Blacks Get Imprisoned?

Here, we looked at the number of prior felony convictions of people admitted to the Wisconsin prison system during 2001-2006. Prior felony convictions have a huge effect on whether an offender will get prison (as opposed to probation), and on the length of the sentence imposed.

If blacks are victims of discrimination, we would expect that more of the blacks admitted to prison would have no prior convictions. That is to say, if you are black you can get thrown into prison even though you are less “qualified” for prison than a white. Consider it a bizarre affirmative action program.

But in reality, 48.2% of the whites admitted to prison in Wisconsin have no prior felony convictions, while only 37.5% of blacks have no prior felony convictions. It is, apparently, easier for a white to get thrown into the slammer than a black.

Exhibit Five: Who Commits More Crimes?

If blacks are “over represented” in the prison population in Wisconsin, is this the result of discrimination? It’s not if blacks are equally over represented among those who commit crimes.

Most crime statistics do not provide the race of the offender, but a new system of reporting -- the Incident Based Reporting System used by the Milwaukee Police Department -- does. When we analyze that data, we find that blacks in the city of Milwaukee commit violent crimes at eight times the rate of whites.

(The race of the offender is missing most of the time where property crimes are concerned, so we can’t do any meaningful analysis of those.)

It is difficult to know whether blacks are over incarcerated in Milwaukee County, since the incident reporting data applies only to the city of Milwaukee, and prison admissions data are available only from Milwaukee County. If we knew the proportion of all offenses in the suburbs committed by blacks, we could figure this out. But we don’t, so we can’t.

Still, eight to one is a pretty lopsided ratio. It makes it obvious that most (and perhaps all) of the “over incarceration” of blacks is the result of blacks doing more crimes.


We make some additional points in the article, especially about the fact that the vast majority of the victims of black crime are themselves black. Wanting to keep black criminals out of prison is, in effect, to want more blacks victimized.

But a large part of the black political establishment, like the white liberal establishment, seems to want that. Maybe they haven’t thought of the issue in this way. But if they haven’t, why haven’t they?

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Anonymous yana said...

Have you seen Edwards' latest comments on the topic?

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the citation for his article? I mean, if I wanted to use it as a reference for my thesis... is it even considered scholarly?

11:38 AM  
Blogger John McAdams said...

In the first place, you want to cite the article not the blog post:

You can get information about the print edition of the journal here:

Is it scholarly? Yes, because an academic (me) wrote it.

Feel free to contact me via e-mail if you want to discuss this more.

10:43 PM  

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