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Race and Punishment - Directions for Economic Research

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 1984
5 pages
This article emphasizes the need for economists to enter the debate over the nature and causes of the significant racial disparities in prison incarceration rates in the United States.
The techniques of economic analysis may be applied to the differential treatment of offenders; for example, the application of the standard technique of residual discrimination analysis to a study of the effects of race and disadvantage in the criminal justice system reveals that the effects of punishment on white and black offenders differ. Some writers have suggested that racism is the cause of inequalities in the criminal justice system; they suggest that slavery and its aftermath are at the root of the continuing injustice of longer sentences served by blacks, of their higher probabilities of being sent to prison, and of the harsher penalties they face. Thorsten Sellin has argued that this state of affairs is linked to labor markets; after the Civil War, the South's economy was shattered. But with a system of penal servitude, private slavery was soon replaced with public slavery. Rusche and Kirchheimer contend that the penal system and the form of punishment respond to the system of production. When labor is scarce, there is a tendency to develop a system of production that exploits convict labor. Jankovic expands on this paradigm to suggest that when labor surpluses develop, the severity rather than the form of punishment changes. Economic researchers should consider the role of race in the criminal justice system. Included are 17 references.

Date Published: January 1, 1984