- The Washington Times - Monday, May 29, 2000

"A black youth is six times more likely to be locked up than a white peer, even when charged with a similar crime and when neither has a record … . " So began an April 25 Associated Press news story picked up uncritically by dozens of papers including The Washington Post that helped feed a wave of national breast-beating over the unfairness of the juvenile justice system. The story was about a report put out by a San Francisco organization called Building Blocks for Youth, which claimed to "document the cumulative disadvantage of minority youth" in the face of a biased system.

But is the system really that bad? Are black first-time offenders really six times more likely to go to jail than white first-timers charged with the same crimes? Of course not. To its credit, the Building Blocks for Youth report didn't actually say that. To its great discredit the organization has done nothing to dispel an error that perfectly suits its image of prejudiced law-enforcement. The "six times" figure is probably well on its way into the folklore of racial oppression.

What the report says is that during 1993, black juveniles in several states were six times more likely than whites to get locked up in some kind of public facility. It says nothing about what accounts for this six-fold disparity. This finding is vastly different from the claim that made headlines, namely, that blacks are six times more likely than whites to go to jail when they commit the same crimes and have similar records. The mere fact that more blacks than whites are locked up is something criminologists have known for years and does not necessarily suggest justice system bias at all. It may reflect only higher crime rates among blacks.

The media mischief began when this bit of data was bulleted as a "major finding" at the beginning of the report: "When White youth and minority youth were charged with the same offenses, African-American youth with no prior admissions were six times more likely to be incarcerated in public facilities than White youth with the same background." It sure sounds like a stacked deck in court.

"Perhaps the wording in the bullet was misleading," concedes Eileen Poe-Yamagata, one of the report's co-authors. It sure was. It misled nearly every journalist in the country. The Boston Herald wrote that "black first-time offenders are six times more likely to be sentenced to prison by juvenile courts than whites." The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch led its story with the same shocking finding. The Chicago Tribune, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cleveland Plain-Dealer and Seattle Post-Intelligencer and plenty of other papers trumpeted the news. William Raspberry agonized over judicial bias in his column. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrung its hands over the six times problem in an editorial. It was a startling, incendiary finding and most of the press swallowed it without a gurgle. The Washington Times was one of only a handful of newspapers that did not join the pack, baying about racism.

If there really were such strong evidence of racial bias in the justice system it would be newsworthy all right, but that is not what the report found because it is not there to be found. Many studies over the years have determined that when black and white criminals are carefully compared for offense and criminal record, the justice system treats them pretty much the same. As for high rates of incarceration for blacks, compelling evidence from the U.S. government's National Crime Victimization Survey suggests that blacks juvenile and adult are overrepresented in jails because they commit more crimes, not because of judicial bias.

What are the chances Building Blocks for Youth will issue a correction? "We're not really sure at this point," says Miss Poe-Yamagata. "I had noticed in a few of the articles that there could be a need for that, but there hasn't been an official decision on that." Don't count on one anytime soon. Groups like this thrive on charges of racism, not on sober reporting. It is not likely to be much bothered if a disparity in lock-up rates that probably reflects nothing more than high crime rates among blacks has now been twisted into proof that the system is racist.

Jared Taylor is president of New Century Foundation and writes frequently on crime and crime rates.

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