The Criminal in Racially Imbalanced Prison Statistics

Credit should go to John Hill for broadening his Providence Journal article on racially disproportionate beyond the typical “it’s all about racism” talking point, although (loath as I am to admit it) some credit also has to go to Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré for pushing back on the narrative.  Sure, Hill spends the first 10 paragraphs leaving the standard insinuation out there, and then brings in a voice to contradict Kilmartin and Paré after their contribution.

That said, the article does give me hope that the racial discussion is not entirely intractable, with the way it ends:

Released inmates are returning to impoverished neighborhoods in an economy that is unlikely to give them jobs, [James Vincent, president of the Rhode Island NAACP] said. People generally don’t want to go to prison because it will cost them their job, the house that they live in, the life that they have.

But if someone’s life doesn’t have those things, if it looks like the statistics from the South Side and the West End, Vincent said, prison won’t scare them into obeying the law. If that released inmate thinks playing by the rules is only going to mean poverty, homelessness and the expectation of an early death on the street, he said, that man won’t see much point in playing by society’s rules.

“You don’t want a person who has nothing to lose,” Vincent said. “A person who has nothing to lose is a threat to all society.”

Once we deny the bogeyman Racism his all-encompassing power, other explanations begin to present themselves.  The social justice warriors will soldier on, naturally, to insist on defining all of those factors as merely the symptoms of an “institutional racism,” but that’s only because they worship the bogeyman.  The discussion has to go in that direction.

The next step could be to point out the thing that’s missing from Vincent’s list.  Wanting to keep a job will give people incentive to avoid crime.  Wanting to keep a house will do the same.  But what about their families?

That question brings us back to something observed by Parole Board member Ray Rickman, as Hill writes: “He recalled one applicant appearing a week after the board had voted to release his father. His grandfather was still in prison.”

The answer seems pretty clear, to me.  Minority communities need the things that all communities need.  (And by focusing on percentages, Hill neatly sidesteps the fact, presented in a table from the print edition of the paper, that there are two-and-a-half times more whites either in jail or on probation/parole than blacks.)  They need a strong economy with plenty of opportunities, they need incentive to make the most of those opportunities, and they need strong ties to their families and (in extension) their communities for support and motivation.

In terms of public policy, I look at that set of requirements, and I see a need for government to stop prioritizing insider graft and nanny-state regulations and let the economy loose (regulating hair braiders is a common example of how this affects minorities disproportionately).  I see a need for policies that create real risk for people who don’t take ownership of their own lives (with safety net programs carrying the message that we’ll keep you from starving, but the TV and cell phone are on the line).  And I see a need to keep government from preventing society from developing cultural institutions that link parents with their children — meaning that, yes, marriage is about men, women, and the assumption that their sex leads to the creation of children, that, no, you can’t just kill children whom your actions created, and that, no, you can’t just dissolve a solemn vow as a matter of convenience.

The typical emotional reaction of liberals to these suggestions is understandable.  After all, they do derive from our society’s religious heritage.  They also require us to presume to be adults, which isn’t fun, and they place burdens on people beyond just supporting a particular political party or donating to progressive non-profits.  But the choice is this multigenerational exodus of vulnerable people from full participation in American society.

In the end, the most intractable problem is probably the people on the inside who benefit from big government — many of them, naturally, the same people wringing their hands over race issues.  They don’t want to give up their power and advantage.

But if you want to find the locus of “institutional racism,” look there: at the starting point of the “institution” in big-government cities and states like Rhode Island.  Of course, some among the social justice warriors must already realize that, but then, they worship government, too.

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