There Are No Systemic Problems! Or Something.

African Americans are overrepresented in the nation's prisons and jails, and it's common to attribute some of this to systemic forces; poverty, poor schools, inadequate legal representation, drug-enforcement policies, and sentencing laws. It's not that black people are more prone to criminality; it's that they are more likely to find themselves affected by the things that guarantee high rates of incarceration. Of course, some people disagree. Like, for instance, two justices on the Washington state Supreme Court:

State Supreme Court justices Richard Sanders and James Johnson stunned some participants at a recent court meeting when they said African Americans are overrepresented in the prison population because they commit a disproportionate number of crimes.

Both justices disputed the view held by some that racial discrimination plays a significant role in the disparity. [...]

Sanders later confirmed his remarks about imprisoned African Americans, saying "certain minority groups" are "disproportionally represented in prison because they have a crime problem."

"That's right," he told The Seattle Times this week. "I think that's obvious."

Sanders is a self-described civil libertarian, who says his concern is for "individuals," which is very short-sighted, when it comes to criminal justice. Who is arrested and who is prosecuted has everything to do with race, even if discrimination isn't explicitly involved. Of course, the inability to see systemic problems is a common blind spot among many libertarians, so I guess I'm not terribly surprised. Still, I'd imagine that this could be trouble for criminal-justice advocates in Washington, who may eventually have to contend with judges who are skeptical that systems play a part in how the law dispenses punishment.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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