January/ February 2013 Prison’s Dilemma

Even if every convict were rightly sentenced, America’s vast, racially skewed incarceration system would still be morally indefensible.

By Glenn C. Loury

I am not saying that a criminal has no agency in his behavior. Rather, I am arguing that the larger society is implicated in a criminal’s choices because we have acquiesced to social arrangements that work to our benefit and to his detriment—that shape his consciousness and his sense of identity in a way that the choices he makes (and that we must condemn) are nevertheless compelling to him.

Put simply, the structure of our cities with their massive ghettos is a causal factor in the deviancy among those living there. Recognition of this fact has far-reaching implications for the conduct of public policy. What goals are our prisons trying to achieve, and how should we weigh the enormous costs they impose on our fellow, innocent citizens?

In short, we must think of justice as a complex feedback loop. The way in which we distribute justice—putting people in prison—has consequences, which raise more questions of justice, like how to deal with convicts’ families and communities, who are also punished, though they themselves have done nothing wrong. Even if every sentence handed out to every prisoner were itself perfectly fair (an eminently dubious proposition), our system would still be amoral, because it punishes innocents. Those who claim on principled arguments that “a man deserves his punishment” are missing the larger picture. A million criminal cases, each rightly decided—each distributing justice to a man who deserves his sentence—still add up to a great and historic wrong.

Click here to read more from our Jan/Feb 2013 cover package “Race, History, and Obama’s Second Term.”

Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and Professor of Economics at Brown University. He is the author of, among other works, "Race, Incarceration, and American Values: The Tanner Lectures."


  • chris on February 01, 2013 10:59 PM:

    Most ghettos I have seen are neighborhoods where middle-class people used to live.

    They were then destroyed by the folks who moved to them and neglected them.

    "The larger society is implicated in the criminal's choices" - are you serious?

    And you teach what?

    And you teach where?

    I was born poor in East St. Louis, Illinois.

    I graduated from a public high school and 3 state universities.

    I apparently didn't get the memo that I should hang around a sell crack and prostitute young girls.

    Go back to your upper middle class neighborhood in Providence, RI or whereever you live and sip on your white wine spritzers and solve the rest of the world's problems.

  • Jo-Hannah on February 02, 2013 10:04 AM:

    It all boils down to choices, not location. I have known many who have lived in similar type neighborhoods and they didn't end up in prison because they decided they didn't want to be that way. Although some people are incarcerated wrongly, including white people, the majority of people are incarcerated because of choices they made. And while I admit someone's raising might play into the attitude they have, ultimately we are responsible for the decisions we make. Where there is a will there is a way.

  • SteveT on February 02, 2013 12:56 PM:

    "It is my belief that such racial disparity is not mainly due to overt discriminatory practices by the courts or the police."

    I've come up with my own idea about what causes the racial disparity in our prisons. I call it the "Ten Percent Rule". It is mere speculation, based on anecdotes, and it assumes that there is not systematic racism in the law enforcement and criminal justice systems. And it almost certainly can't be proven. But it's worth throwing out there anyway.

    One time in ten police let a white person off with a warning while arresting the black or hispanic person for the same offense.

    One time in ten a prosecutor decides not to charge a white person while charging a black or hispanic person for the same offense.

    One time in ten the prosecutor decides the charge for a white person will be a misdemeanor while the minority person is charged with a felony for the same offense.

    One time in ten the prosecutor allows a white person a plea bargain for probation or a suspended sentence while insisting on jail time for a minority person for the same offense.

    One time in ten the judge allows the prosecutor to talk about "gang affiliations" at the minority defendant's trial while disallowing the same kind of information for a white defendant.

    One time in ten the jury will decide not to "ruin" the life of the "nice" white defendant while convicting the minority defendant based on equivalent evidence.

    One time in ten the judge will take into account the "stable family" of the white defendant while discounting the same situation for the minority defendant.

    Add up all those "one time in ten" situations and you end up with mostly brown and black faces in prison.

    Of course, another huge factor is economics. Anyone who is poor -- a much greater percentage of minority defendants -- and who has to depend on our joke of a public defender system is going to be pretty well screwed.