John McAdams attended Monday's hearing of the Governor's commission on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The importance of the subject cannot be overstated. It is critical that the system be fair and also, I think, extremely important that it be perceived to be fair.
I am not optimistic about the commission which seems to lack political diversity. On something like this, a governor ought not to prefer members of his own party and people who share his ideological proclivities. In a truly bizarro world in which I were Governor, I'd go out of my way to appoint some flaming lefties. I can't say that I know the politics of everyone on the commission (and there are certainly intelligent and accomplished folks on it), but I recognize no strong conservative voices. I hope I am wrong.
Last week on WMCS, I heard the commission's executive director, Lindsay Draper, basically say that there is no one on the commission who does not think that racism is a serious problem in the criminal justice system. Depending on what you mean by that, this is a problematic statement. It seems unlikely that there is not some racism in the system and it would be impossible for racial issues, broadly defined, not to have a lot to do with what goes on in the system, but it is not obvious that racial discrimination within the system is a primary determinant of its outcomes. At least that ought to be an open question.
My concern is underscored by John's report that the commission's chair, Spencer Coggs, does not believe that "blacks commit crimes at a greater rate than whites" but are only "stopped more."
It's an uncomfortable thing to say because we know how it can be misused, but it's hard to deny that offenders are a higher percentage of the black population than they are of the white population. I actually believe that some of what you hear from liberals as explanations for that are true, if not as relevant to the best solutions as they would argue. Poverty plays a role. The legacy of racial discrimination plays a role. I think that family disarray and culture are huge factors and that, while these things aren't the simple result of poverty and racism, they are certainly related to poverty and racism.
But whatever the reasons for them, the facts are the facts. If you deny them, you will mischaracterize the system and focus on the wrong solutions. One of the tragedies of that would be that the one huge racial disparity that we ought to focus on is the disparity in victimization. It may be that some greater percentage of blacks are offenders, but blacks are far more likely to be the ones offended against. The implications of that for bettering the lot of poor black families are staggering.
I hope that is a disparity that the governor's commission does not forget.