Mac Donald v. Solomon

Mac Donald v. Solomon

 PART 3:

Authors from Part 3 of our policies series respond. (Previously: Heather Mac Donald, "Telling the Truth About Crime and Policing;" Danyelle Solomon, "Time to Fix Our Failing Criminal-Justice System.")

Response to Danyelle Solomon

By Heather Mac Donald

Ms. Solomon makes the usual claims about the disproportionate presence of minorities in the criminal-justice system and, as usual, says not one word about crime rates. Blacks commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined; black males between the ages of 14 and 17 commit gun homicide at nearly 10 times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.  It is therefore no surprise that blacks are more likely to be arrested than whites or that they are disproportionately in prison. 

Criminologists have tried for decades to prove that racial incarceration rates represent systemic criminal-justice bias and have been forced to conclude, along with criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen, that the overwhelming evidence establishes that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” in Sampson and Lauritsen’s words, not racism, explain why more blacks are in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms. Once criminal history is taken into account, along with gang ties and other factors, racial disparities in sentences disappear.

The federal crack penalties, to which Ms. Solomon links as an example of “inherently biased” mandatory-minimum sentences, were the result of pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus for a federal response to what New York Congressman Alton Waldon called “the worst oppression [blacks] have known since slavery.” Federal penalties for methamphetamine trafficking were identical to the now-superseded federal crack penalties, but no one calls the federal meth laws anti-Hispanic or anti-white, even though federal meth defendants are overwhelmingly white and Hispanic. (Only 2.5 percent of sentenced meth offenders in 2012 were black, for example; in 2006, the black percentage of federal meth offenders was 2 percent.) 

U.S. incarceration rates reflect our much higher rates of violent crime compared with other industrialized countries. The U.S. homicide rate is seven times higher than the combined rate of 21 Western developed nations plus Japan; the American gun homicide rate is 19.5 times higher.  

To be sure, prisons could be vastly improved. All prisoners should work; high quality vocational training should be universally available. It is hard to find an offender, however, who has not been offered treatment programs galore. 

But while prisons could be better structured for rehabilitation, we should keep in mind that stricter sentences for repeat offenders, combined with the data-driven policing revolution of the 1990s, resulted in an unforeseen and nearly unprecedented crime drop from the mid-1990s through 2014. The primary beneficiaries of that crime drop were minorities; minorities are now the primary victims of the false narrative that policing and the criminal-justice system are shot through with racism. 

 (For the opposing view, see Danyelle Solomon, "Time to Fix Our Failing Criminal-Justice System.")


Response to Heather Mac Donald 

By Danyelle Solomon

Ms. Mac Donald got one thing right: Rhetoric is important. Unfortunately, her rhetoric is part of the problem. Dog-whistle soundbites, out of context statistics, and a false choice between the Black Lives Matter movement and the safety of our police won’t fix our broken criminal-justice system.

The United States leads the world in incarceration. Nearly half of U.S. children have a family member with a criminal record. Yet our nation’s over-incarceration is not making us any safer.

Instead, our broken justice system continues to devastate generations of communities and families. The next administration must focus on changing outdated, discriminatory, and non-responsive criminal-justice policies. Comprehensive reform would help not only those who are or have been incarcerated, but also communities, families, and officers. 

First, we must address sentencing and prison reform. Sentencing policies are inherently biased and are the leading driver of the growing number of Americans who encounter the criminal-justice system. Furthermore, we must prioritize programming and social services. When incarcerated individuals and returning citizens have access to treatment, employment, and housing, recidivism rates go down.

I, like President Obama, “reject any narrative that seeks to divide police and communities that they serve.” That is why comprehensive reform must also address the many challenges officers face on the job. Officers interact with individuals suffering from mental health, substance-abuse disorders, disabilities, trauma, and poverty on a regular basis. Yet they lack adequate training to respond appropriately. Law-enforcement officers should have access to robust and ongoing training that includes implicit bias and de-escalation training, and employ collaborative response models of policing. 

Finally, to build trust between communities and police, officers must be held accountable for misconduct. If only 30 percent of Americans believe law enforcement departments are effective and fair in holding officers accountable for misconduct, trust in the system disappears.

Terrance Cunningham, President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the country’s largest law enforcement organization, recently acknowledged and apologized for the historical role police have played in creating mistrust in communities of color. Policymakers, together with the next administration, must also seize this moment to comprehensively address the systemic failures of our criminal-justice system. 

Failure to follow up with comprehensive policy changes would be detrimental both to society and those in blue. 

(For the opposing view, see Heather Mac Donald, "Telling the Truth About Crime and Policing.")


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.

Danyelle Solomon is the Director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.

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