Racism (26): Racism in Criminal Justice

African Americans get, on average, a raw deal from the criminal justice system in the US. They get arrested more often, in part because of racial profiling; when they end up in court, they face racially biased juries; and when it’s time to sentence them, they receive harsher penalties and join an already overrepresented group in the prison system (African Americans are more likely to spend time in jail and when they do they spend more time in jail). Some more evidence:

Biased juries

Here’s a study showing that the racial composition of juries affects trial outcomes and conviction rates:

This article examines the impact of jury racial composition on trial outcomes using a data set of felony trials in Florida between 2000 and 2010. We use a research design that exploits day-to-day variation in the composition of the jury pool to isolate quasi-random variation in the composition of the seated jury, finding evidence that (i) juries formed from all-white jury pools convict black defendants significantly (16 percentage points) more often than white defendants, and (ii) this gap in conviction rates is entirely eliminated when the jury pool includes at least one black member. The impact of jury race is much greater than what a simple correlation of the race of the seated jury and conviction rates would suggest. These findings imply that the application of justice is highly uneven and raise obvious concerns about the fairness of trials in jurisdictions with a small proportion of blacks in the jury pool. (source)

Whether or not someone is convicted has a lot to do with the luck of the draw or with the success of prosecutors or defendants wishing to remove people from juries. This raises obvious concerns about the fairness of criminal justice.

Biased prosecutors

African Americans receive longer sentences because prosecutors are, on average, more likely to charge them with crimes that require minimum sentences:

This study provides robust evidence that black arrestees in the federal system—particularly black men—experience moderately but significantly worse case outcomes than do white defendants arrested for the same crimes and with the same criminal history. Most of that disparity appears to be introduced at the initial charging stage …  [C]ompared to white men, black men face charges that are on average about seven to ten percent more severe on various severity scales, and are more than twice as likely to face charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences.  These disparities persist after charge bargaining and, ultimately, are a major contributor to the large black-white disparities in prison sentence length. (source)

Biased police

An example of racial profiling: a study of New York City’s stop-and-frisk program has revealed that

out of all ethnicities stopped, white people had the highest chance of having committed a crime, despite being proportionally the least searched. (source)

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (38): The Base-Rate Fallacy

When judging whether people engage in discrimination it’s important to make the right comparisons. Take the example of an American company X where 98 percent of employees are white and only 2 percent are black. If you compare to (“if your base is”) the entire US population – of which about 13 percent are African American – then you’ll conclude that company X is motivated by racism in its employment decisions.

However, in cases such as these, it’s probably better to use another base rate, namely the number of applicants rather than the total population. If only 0.1 percent of job applications where from blacks, then an employment rate of 2 percent blacks actually shows that company X has favored black applicants.

The accusation of racism betrays a failure to point to the real causes of discrimination. It’s a failure to go back far enough and to think hard enough. The fact that only 0.1 percent of applicants were black – instead of the expected 13 percent – may still be due to racism, but not racism in company X. Blacks may suffer from low quality education, which results in a skill deficit among blacks, which in turn leads to a low application rate for certain jobs.

The opposite error is also quite common: people point to the number of blacks in prison, compare this to the total number of blacks, and conclude that blacks must be more attracted to crime. However, they should probably compare incarceration rates to arrest rates (blacks are arrested at higher rates because of racial profiling). And they should take into account jury bias as well.

More about racism. More posts in this series.

Racism (16): Race and Crime

It’s well-known that African-Americans make up a disproportionate part of the U.S. prison population. Racists of course have an easy explanation for this, but what is the real explanation? Part of it is probably racial profiling and bias among jury members. Another part of the explanation can be poverty, unemployment and lower education, burdens from which African-Americans also suffer disproportionately. And although crime has many possible causes, there’s some evidence that at least some types of property crime go up during recessions. This indicates that there’s a link between crime and poverty, something which in turn can explain different arrest ratios across races given the different poverty rates across races.

There’s an interesting paper here studying the effects of both labor market conditions and asset poverty on the property crimes involvement of American males. It turns out that poverty and labor market outcomes account for as much as 90% of the arrest rates ratio.

Racism (12): Implicit Racism in Criminal Justice

Overt manifestations of racial or other types of group-based hate, prejudice or discrimination are relatively rare these days because they have become increasingly unacceptable. However, the racist or prejudiced ideas that form the basis of such overt manifestations aren’t necessarily less common than they used to be. Or perhaps the word “idea” is too strong. “Unconscious biases” or even “instincts” may be more appropriate terms. “Instincts” in this context is a term used to link contemporary racism and prejudice to lingering aspects of early human evolution encouraging distrust of other groups as a survival strategy.

Indeed, certain psychological experiments have shown how easy it is to induce people to hateful behavior towards members of other groups, even people who self-describe as strongly anti-prejudice. There have also been some notorious cases of the effect of hate propaganda on people’s behavior.

On the other hand, there are some indicators that suggest a decrease in the levels of racism, and there are theories that say that it should decrease. However, other data suggest that “unconscious biases” are still very strong:

[T]his Article proposes and tests a new hypothesis called Biased Evidence Hypothesis. Biased Evidence Hypothesis posits that when racial stereotypes are activated, jurors automatically and unintentionally evaluate ambiguous trial evidence in racially biased ways. Because racial stereotypes in the legal context often involve stereotypes of African-Americans and other minority group members as aggressive criminals, Biased Evidence Hypothesis, if confirmed, could help explain the continued racial disparities that plague the American criminal justice system.

To test Biased Evidence Hypothesis, we designed an empirical study that tested how mock-jurors judge trial evidence. As part of an “evidence slideshow” in an armed robbery case, we showed half of the study participants a security camera photo of a dark-skinned perpetrator and the other half of the participants an otherwise identical photo of a lighter-skinned perpetrator. We then presented participants with evidence from the trial, and asked them to judge how much each piece of evidence tended to indicate whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty. The results of the study supported Biased Evidence Hypothesis and indicated that participants who saw a photo of a dark-skinned perpetrator judged subsequent evidence as more supportive of a guilty verdict compared to participants who saw a photo of a lighter-skinned perpetrator. (source)

Maybe racism hasn’t decreased but has just become more difficult to spot, including for the racists themselves. Swastikas and KKK hoods aren’t so common anymore, and instead we have to look for unconscious biases, implicit racism or even unintentional racism.

Discrimination (5): Statistical Discrimination


Here’s the New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics definition of statistical discrimination:

Statistical discrimination is a theory of inequality between demographic groups based on stereotypes that do not arise from prejudice or racial and gender bias. When rational, information-seeking decision makers use aggregate group characteristics, such as group averages, to evaluate individual personal characteristics, individuals belonging to different groups may be treated differently even if they share identical observable characteristics in every other aspect. … group-level statistics, such as group averages, are used as a proxy for the individual variables. (source)

Statistical discrimination, also called rational prejudice (or rational racism), occurs when some stereotypes are considered to be statistically “accurate”. Accurate here in the sense of statistical generalization or average behavior (or characteristics).

Some examples

Young drivers are on average more likely to be involved in traffic accidents. Hence, auto insurers impose higher auto insurance premiums on young people. This insurance discrimination is called statistical discrimination because it’s based on some level of accuracy regarding the stereotype, and not on plain prejudice of or disgust for young people.

Regarding life insurance premiums, the customer’s likelihood of dying is one of the most relevant variables affecting the insurers profitability. Since gender is highly correlated with life expectancy, it is therefore optimal for the company to adopt a policy setting higher premiums for men, even for those men who may be healthier and less risk prone than the average woman. (source)

Employers often use the average performance of an applicant’s group to determine whether to hire him or her.

You don’t hire a guy with a Mohawk as a receptionist at a law firm – even if he promises to get a hair cut. Why not? Because on average, … guys with Mohawks have trouble with authority. (source)

Similarly, people with facial tattoos are unlikely to be hired as CEO’s, perhaps because they signal an anarchic, counter-cultural, contrarian, nonconformist, bohemian and “wandering” attitude.


The reason people engage in statistical discrimination is the high cost of making case-by-case judgments and the relative accuracy of group averages. Given that it’s not a product of bigotry, irrational prejudice, hatred and dislike, is it correct to call it discrimination? It is in the sense that people judge other people simply on the basis of group membership, not individual merit, as in “regular”, “irrational” discrimination or prejudice. Yet it’s not discrimination because people engaging in statistical discrimination often don’t do so because of their dislike or hatred of the discriminated group but because of economic self-interest and risk avoidance, as is shown by the examples above. The stereotypes are not baseless as most stereotypes are (“Blacks are lazy”, “Jews are money hungry”, “women are only productive at home” etc.).

This discrimination is “statistical” because contrary to normal prejudice it acknowledges that a relatively large number of members of a group do not conform to the stereotype. Just as it isn’t irrational to claim that it’s statistically accurate that republicans in general are pro-life while at the same time knowing that many aren’t. “Irrational” prejudice doesn’t have so much tolerance for exceptions. “People see others as average members of their groups until proven otherwise”. (source)

Is it acceptable?

So we know what it is and why people do it, but is it morally and legally acceptable? I think it depends on the type.

While such discrimination is legal in some cases (e.g., insurance markets), it is illegal and/or controversial in others (e.g., racial profiling). (source)

The difference between acceptable and unacceptable statistical discrimination hinges on several facts, I think:

1. How accurate are the group generalizations? You can forgive profit-seeking insurers for imposing higher auto insurance premiums on young people. However, wage gaps between genders resulting from theories about lower productivity of women (said to result from higher female investment in child rearing and a focus on “caring jobs” as opposed to jobs that tend to pay well) are less acceptable because the generalization is more dubious and the category of “women” too broad. Generalizations may be more accurate when they are not about behavior but about more “technical” and less controversial things such as life expectancy.

2. What is the “weight of history”? Statistical discrimination of blacks or women is by definition less acceptable than statistical discrimination of young people, given the history (maybe that’s a stereotype about discrimination…). Differentiated treatment, even if it isn’t really discrimination, can still cause harm given a certain history. The harm can be feelings of insecurity regarding a possible repetition of the past, feelings of continued attacks on self-esteem etc.

3. What are the consequences of statistical discrimination? Paying a slightly higher insurance premium is a lesser harm than being pulled over by the police a few times a week because of your skin color, even if your skin color is a statistically “accurate” prediction of the probability that you engage in crime in your neighborhood.

4. To what extent is statistical discrimination self-fulfilling? To some extent it clearly is.

People think teen-age males are criminally inclined (and they are), this angers the teen-age males, leading them to commit more crimes. (source).

If everyone assumes that boys are not good at domestic work, the benefit of learning domestic work is zero because no one will hire you as a domestic worker. In some areas, this self-fulfilling process is obviously harmful, and hence statistical discrimination is harmful as well.

It is possible that, because employers are less likely to hire women in jobs that require labour market attachment, then women are more likely to be involved in child-rearing than men, and are less prone to acquire the skills that are necessary to seek and perform well in those jobs, confirming the asymmetric belief that employers hold regarding labour market attachment. (source)

This phenomenon is called the stereotype threat. On the other hand, there can be self-reversing prophesies at work as well. A-typical members of a group, who of course suffer from the prejudice in the same way as typical members, may incite the latter to change their behavior. E.g. responsible young drivers who pay too much insurance because of the typical behavior of their fellow group members, may pressure the latter to change their ways. In this way, statistical discrimination may work to undermine itself. The same result will occur because a non-typical member of a group may get relatively more exposure. A woman who’s relatively good at soccer – compared to other women – but just as good as an average male soccer player, may get more attention than the latter. This excess of attention may undermine the stereotype on female soccer players.

Limiting Free Speech (32b): Talking Back to the Cops

US cops, acting on false information given to them by “concerned bystanders”, busted Henry Louis Gates for trying to force his way into his own house and for consequently reacting to the cops in a way that supposedly amounted to “disorderly conduct”.

First of all, I don’t intend to dig up the details of the case or pronounce moral judgment on either Gates or the cops. Probably both had good reasons for their conduct – I don’t know, I wasn’t there. Racial profiling is a cancer in society, and when someone like Gates is confronted with it, I understand his anger and perhaps his sense of responsibility to react to it. Given his moral stature in the community, I think it’s even likely that he used the occasion to react in an overly theatrical way in order to get a point across, hoping that the fact that he was doing it on his own property would shield him against arrest. Or perhaps hoping the contrary. If so, he certainly succeeded. The police officer, on the other hand, was probably also doing what he thought was his job and it’s unlikely that he was racially motivated.

But I don’t know any of this. So I’ll cut out the speculation and go on to the substantive theoretical point: should people, when confronted by the police, have a right to speak up, possible even in a “disorderly manner”, i.e. high pitched voices and rude language? I think that’s the case, at least in most circumstances (and so does the US judiciary).

Many cops are overly sensitive to people talking back. It undermines their authority, and a quick move with the handcuffs does wonders to restore it. Of course, people talking back can also be dangerous for cops, since talking back can escalate to violence. I think cops should be able to make the distinction between people talking back because they have a genuine grievance, and other people who simply talk back because they know it can serve them well when they are able to undermine the police action.

This means that cops can, and should be able to, use their discretion when deciding that someone should or should not be able to exercise their freedom of speech. Of course, there’s always the possibility to have this discretion reviewed by a judge afterwards. But that discretion is conditional on the cops’ training. They should have thick skins. That’s an elementary requirement for being a cop. Having thick skin means that you don’t automatically consider talking back as an affront to your dignity and authority as a cop. In other words, it means that you can distinguish between, on the one hand, justified talk – i.e. the expression of rational (but not necessarily justified) grievances, even if they are not expressed in a rational way – and, on the other hand, possibly dangerous talk.

Respect and honor are important, but we all know what happens when we require too much respect and when our honor has the strength of egg shells. It’s inherent in the job of a police officer to have people talking back. As a police officer, you don’t tell people what they want to hear, and you tell it to them when they’re in personally difficult circumstances. You annoy them, almost by definition. Hence, reactions and abuse are part of the job. Going around and arresting everyone who talks back to you would be quite difficult, if not impossible. Try to talk them down. Verbal skills, like thick skin, are part of your cv. Sure, you deserve respect, and people who have grievances should address them to you in a civilized manner. But freedom of speech extends beyond civilized speech.

Also, a lot depends on the circumstances in which the talking back takes place. In the Gates case, it appears that events took place on the property of Gates. It would  have been quite different if a lonely cop was taking abuse from a crowd of people in a down town area, even if the words being uttered were exactly the same.

So it seems that there can be no clear rule for or against the right to talk back. (Bill Easterly has a nice post on “inflexible rules“). We should allow cops to use their discretion, but we should also train them to do so. Civilians have the right to free speech, even abusive speech, but should accept that this right is limited in certain circumstances.

One more point: it has been observed in psychological experiments that allowing people to vent defuses a situation and makes it less dangerous. Shutting people up just multiplies their frustations, and a violent explosion becomes more likely.