Capital Punishment (26): The Probability of Capital Punishment in the U.S., by Race, Ctd.

Following up from a previous post: there are many things wrong with capital punishment in the U.S. (and with capital punishment as such), but the most obvious thing is the blatant racism of it all. A black person in the U.S. is almost 4 times more likely to be executed. Even if we assume that this higher probability of being executed correctly reflects a higher probability of being involved in crime that comes with capital punishment – and that’s something we shouldn’t assume, because it’s likely that there are injustices involved, e.g. inadequate legal representation and such – that shouldn’t put our minds at ease. We then still have to ask the question: why are blacks more likely to be involved in capital offences? Surely not because of their race. Something happens in society that leads to this unfair outcome.

Some would say that blacks in the U.S. have always been kept in their place, and that violence (including state violence) was and remains the best way to do that.

Here are some more numbers which show that it isn’t just the race of the defendant that matters but also the race of the victim, making it even more convincing that capital punishment is the new Jim Crow:

The probability of being sentenced to death is much greater if a defendant kills a white or Hispanic victim who is married with a clean criminal record and a college degree, as opposed to a black or Asian victim who is single with a prior criminal record and no college degree. … death is more apt to be sought and imposed on behalf of high status victims. Some victims matter more than others. (source, source)

So, capital punishment isn’t just racist, it’s also a means for the wealthy to keep the poor in their place. If that’s true, it’s depressing.

Capital Punishment (24): The Probability of Capital Punishment in the U.S., by Race

The U.S. population is about 300,000,000. Whites represent about 80%, or roughly 240,000,000. If you check the numbers of executions in the U.S., you’ll see that there were about 1,000 in the period from 1977 to 2005. 584 of those executions were of whites. That’s about 20 executions per year on average, meaning that whites have a chance of 1 in 12,000,000 of being executed.

There are about 40,000,000 African Americans, representing roughly 13 % of the U.S. population. 339 executions in the 1977-2005 period were of African Americans. That’s about 12 a year, meaning that blacks have a chance of 1 in 3,300,000 of being executed.

A black person in the U.S. is therefore almost 4 times more likely to be executed. Even if we assume that this higher probability of being executed correctly reflects a higher probability of being involved in crime that comes with capital punishment – and that’s something we shouldn’t assume, because it’s likely that there are injustices involved, e.g. inadequate legal representation and such – that shouldn’t put our minds at ease. We then still have to ask the question: why are blacks more likely to be involved in capital offences? Surely not because of their race. Something happens in society that leads to this outcome, and it’s likely that there are injustices involved: for example, inadequate education, poverty levels, discrimination etc.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (9): Too Small Sample Sizes in Surveys

So many things can go wrong in the design and execution of opinion surveys. And opinion surveys are a common tool in data gathering in the field of human rights.

As it’s often impossible (and undesirable) to question a whole population, statisticians usually select a sample from the population and ask their questions only to the people in this sample. They assume that the answers given by the people in the sample are representative of the opinions of the entire population. But that’s only the case if the sample is a fully random subset of the population – that means that every person in the population should have an equal chance of being chosen – and if the sample hasn’t been distorted by other factors such as self-selection by respondents (a common thing in internet polls) or personal bias by the statistician who selects the sample.

A sample that is too small is also not representative for the entire population. For example, if we ask 100 people if they approve or disapprove of discrimination of homosexuals, and 55 of them say they approve, we might assume that about 55% of the entire population approves. Now it could possible be that only 45% of the total population approve, but that we just happened, by chance, to interview an unusually large percentage of people who approve. For example, this may have happened because, by chance and without being aware of it, we selected the people in our sample in such a way that there are more religious conservatives in our sample than there are in society, relatively speaking.

This is the problem of sample size: the smaller the sample, the greater the influence of luck on the results we get. Asking the opinion of 100 people, and taking this as representative of millions of citizens, is like throwing a coin 10 times and assuming – after having 3 heads and 7 tails – that the probability of throwing heads is 30%. We all know that it’s not 30 but 50%. And we know this because we know that when we increase the “sample size” – i.e. when we throw more than 10 times, say a thousand times – we will have heads and tails approximately half of the time. Likewise, if we take our example of the survey on homosexuality: increasing the sample size reduces the chance that religious conservatives (or other groups) are disproportionately represented in the sample.

When analyzing survey results, the first thing to look at is the sample size, as well as the level of confidence (usually 95%) that the results are within a certain margin of error (usually + or – 5%). High levels of confidence that the results are correct within a small margin of error indicate that the sample was sufficiently large and random.

Human Rights and Risk

Obviously, we all run the risk of having our rights violated. Depending on where you live in the world, this risk may be big or small. For some, the risk always remains a risk, and their rights are always respected. But that’s the exception. Many people live with a more or less permanent fear that their rights will be violated. This fear is based on their previous experiences with rights violations, and/or on what they see happening around them.

I see at least two interesting questions regarding this kind of risk:

  • Is, as Nozick argued, the risk or probability of a rights violation a rights violation in itself? Do people have a right not to fear possible rights violations?
  • And, to what extent does this risk of rights violations lead to rights violations?

The first question is the hardest one, I think. It seems that the risk of suffering rights violations is there all of the time, although it may be very small for some of us. If there is a right not to live with this risk, then this right would be violated all of the time. What good is a right that is perpetually violated?

However, it would seem that in some circumstances, where the probability that rights are violated is very high, people do indeed suffer. Imagine that you live in a society in which there is a high probability that you are arbitrarily arrested by the police. Even if you are not actually arrested – and your rights are therefore not violated – you are living in fear. It would seem that a right not to live in fear of rights violations does have some use in these high-risk environments.

But if we limit the right not to risk rights violations to situations in which there is a high probability of rights violations, we will have to decide on a threshold: when, at what level of high probability of rights violations, does the right not to risk rights violations become effective? This means introducing arbitrariness.

And another problem: what if you don’t know about the risk? There may be at certain moments a high probability that your rights will be violated, but you don’t have to be aware of this. In that case, you don’t fear the rights violations, and hence there is no harm done to you. It’s difficult to conceive of a right when its violation doesn’t (always) cause harm of some kind, and hence the right not to risk rights violations seems impossible in this case.

The second question is more straightforward. Everyday we see how the risk of rights violations leads to actual rights violations. The perception of risk, and people’s counter-strategies designed to limit the risk of rights violations, makes them violate other rights. The war on terror is a classic example. Ticking bomb torture is another.

The objective of avoiding risk creates risks, namely the risks that our actions designed to avoid risk cause harm. We may have to learn (again) how to live with risk.