Sunday, October 11, 2009

Race vs. class in the USA: the death penalty

This is a lightly updated version of a post I made in 2007:

If you're one of those Americans who believe we live in a classless society, race is clearly an enormous factor in the death penalty: we're about 66% white, 13.5% black, 1% American Indian, 4.5% Asian, and 15% Hispanic/Latino. But according to the Death Penalty Information Center, these are the racial percentages for people legally executed for murder since 1976:
BLACK: 34%
WHITE: 57%
The same page has another interesting set of numbers, the races of the victims:
BLACK: 14%
WHITE: 79%
The victims are surprisingly representative of the population of the US; it's the racial breakdown of murderers that's disproportionate. Someone who only considers race would conclude that blacks murder more than whites, and blacks are more likely to get the death penalty than whites.

But there are other factors. In a discussion by various experts at Race and the Death Penalty, John McAdams says: is clearly the case that blacks who murder whites are treated more harshly than are blacks who murder blacks. This looks like racial disparity if you assume that the circumstances are similar in the two cases. Unfortunately, it's vastly unlikely that they are. Most murders are among people who know each other. Murders done by strangers are much more likely to be regarded as heinous than are murders growing out of domestic quarrels, drug deals gone wrong, and such. It might seem reasonable to compare the punishment received by blacks who murder whites with the treatment received by whites who murder blacks. Unfortunately, while black on white crime is relatively rare, white on black crime is even rarer. There simply isn't an adequate statistical base to allow us to generalize about whites who murder blacks, which pretty much leaves us to compare the way the system treats blacks who murder blacks with the way it treats whites who murder whites. When we do this, we find some fairly solid-looking evidence that the system is unfairly tough on white murderers -- or if you prefer, unfairly lenient on black murderers. But even this finding is one we have to be skeptical about. Is the average black on black murder quite similar to the average white on white murder? Or are there systematic differences?
So what might cause systematic differences?

It's surprisingly difficult to find the percentages for class and race and the death penalty. We know that the rich are rarely charged with the death penalty, regardless of their race (OJ Simpson, for example was facing life imprisonment, not the death penalty). In 2005, I ran a lot of numbers here. If those numbers are wrong, no one's told me yet. To save you from clicking, here's the whole post:
From Capital punishment in the United States:
Approximately 58 percent of the defendants executed were white; 34 percent were black; 6 percent were Hispanic; and 2 percent were from other races.
Unfortunately, they don't give a breakdown by wealth. Death Penalty Information Center has useful information, but their focus is also on race, not class. So I googled "poverty death row" and came up with a number of sites, including a New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty FAQ, that offers this:
Ninety-five percent of defendants charged with capital crimes are indigent and cannot afford their own attorney to represent them.
Here's a reminder of the racial breakdown of poverty in the USA:

Asian persons in poverty: 2.92% (or 3%)
Black or African American persons in poverty: 25.17% (or 25%)
Hispanic or Latino persons in poverty: 22.68% (or 23%)
non-Hispanic Whites persons in poverty: 49.23% (or 49%)

So, remembering that nearly everyone who's executed is poor, let's line this up:

Percentage of people in poverty who are white: 50%
Percentage of people executed who are white: 58%

Percentage of people in poverty who are black: 25%
Percentage of people executed who are black: 34%

Percentage of people in poverty who are Hispanic: 23%
Percentage of people executed who are Hispanic: 6%

Percentage of people in poverty who are Asian: 3%
Percentage of people executed who are "other": 2%

It may be that the white and black poverty-to-execution ratio is high because there's more crime in cities, and a higher percentage of the Latino poor is rural. Or maybe Latinos simply commit fewer crimes of the sort that result in execution. Or maybe we need a lot more study before trying to conclude anything.

But I'm comfortable concluding this: the death penalty is based on class, not race.
Looking for more evidence, I found two surprising supporters: Attorney General John Ashcroft gave this conclusion of a government study in 2001, "There is no evidence of racial bias in the administration of the federal death penalty." In this case, I don't see a reason to disagree with him. Bush and his cabinet (which was more racially diverse than Clinton's or any previous president's) were much more interested in money than race.

While I oppose the death penalty for everyone, the Death Penalty Paper at has interesting figures regarding race and the death penalty. (The section on Christianity is also interesting, and has some of the reasons why I'm a Christian who doesn't much like Paul, Augustine, or Aquinas, who were far happier than Jesus to suck up to the princes of the world.)

P.S. #1 About the theory that the death penalty is a deterrence:

1. Murderers don’t drive their victims to states without the death penalty and kill them there.

2. There is a suggestion that the death penalty is an incentive to kill: “I could get death for this, so I’d better not leave any witnesses.”

3. The states with the greatest number of murders per capita are the ones with the death penalty.

 P.S. #2 When I made the post in 2005, someone who only identified himself as Carl left this comment:
For the past 20+ years I’ve worked in the criminal justice system – the past 8 years for a criminal defense firm, and the 14 years before that as a court clerk – I’ve done more death penalty cases than I want to think about (very few attorneys or judges ever want to do even one, and once you’ve done one, you never want to do another – they’re brutal on everyone involved), and can honestly say that in my experience (in California – your state may be different), the vast majority of DP felons (and felons in general) tend to be poor, poorly educated, and not very bright in general, with very poor social and coping skills. While there are occasional exceptions, they are damned rare.

The only notable exception I worked on was a wealthy woman who went even more psycho (she was bizarre at first, and went completely around the bend when her husband dumped her in favor of Next Year’s Model), and murdered the ex and his new wife in their beds. That one showed up on TV, both in the news and in movies-of-the-week, and she managed to avoid the death penalty, where poorer killers were far more likely to get Death. (Yes – you can probably guess the name).

In my experience (and hers, and OJ’s), money plays a far greater role than ethnicity.