Friday, December 28, 2012

Race vs. class in the USA: the death penalty

If you think the US is a classless society, race seems like an enormous factor in the death penalty. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, these are the racial percentages for the 1320 people legally executed in the USA since 1976:
BLACK: 35%
WHITE: 56%
The site has another interesting set of numbers, the races of the victims:
BLACK: 15%
WHITE: 77%
Someone who only considers race would conclude blacks murder more than whites, and blacks are more likely to get the death penalty than whites.

But there are other factors. 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 be involved in the systematic differences? Here's a hint: New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty FAQ notes "Ninety-five percent of defendants charged with capital crimes are indigent and cannot afford their own attorney to represent them."

The racial mix of Americans who live under the poverty line is 50% white, 25% black, 22% Hispanic, and 3% Asian. 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: 56%

Percentage of people in poverty who are black: 25%
Percentage of people executed who are black: 35%

Percentage of people in poverty who are Hispanic: 23%
Percentage of people executed who are Hispanic: 7%

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

The white and black poverty-to-execution ratio may be high because those populations are more urban and there's more crime in cities, while a higher percentage of the Latino poor is rural.

Looking for more evidence that the death penalty is more about class than race, I found a surprising supporter: 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. Bush and his cabinet (which was more racially diverse than any previous president's) were far more interested in money than race.

When I wrote about this in 2005, someone who 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.