Is American criminal justice color-blind? The statistics say no

By John Roman :: July 16th, 2013

Share

Noting that there are racial disparities in the American criminal justice system is hardly newsworthy. From stop-and-frisk to motor vehicle searches at traffic stops to sentencing, racial disparities abound in modern America. However, until the George Zimmerman trial for Trayvon Martin’s death, one gaping disparity had received little attention.

Black Americans are far less likely to be adjudicated as justified in using deadly force in a firearm-related death. The difference between rates of justifiable rulings in cases with a white shooter and a black victim and cases with a black shooter and a white victim are astonishing.

In fact, they dwarf every other racial disparity in an already racially unbalanced criminal justice system. The differences are so great that any notion that justice in America is color-blind is at risk.

The numbers below require little explanation. Drawing from Supplemental Homicide Reports (SHR) submitted by local law enforcement to the FBI between 2005 and 2010, we see that in cases with a white shooter and a white victim, the shooting is ruled to be justified less than 2 percent of the time. If the shooter is black and the victim is white, the rate of justifiable homicide rulings drops to almost 1 percent. However, if the shooter is white and the victim is black, it is ruled justified in 9.5 percent of cases in non-Stand Your Ground (SYG) states. In SYG states, the rate is even higher—almost 17 percent.

Now consider the situation that occurred in the Zimmerman case (and I note that none of these facts are in dispute). When there is a homicide with one shooter and one victim who are strangers, neither is law enforcement, and a firearm is used to kill, a little less than 3 percent of black-on-white homicides are ruled to be justified. When the races are reversed, the percentage of cases that are ruled to be justified climbs to more than 29 percent in non-SYG states and almost 36 percent in SYG states.

The one gap in the SHR data is the setting where the homicide occurred. If it turns out that almost all the white-on-black homicides occur in residences or businesses and almost all the black-on-white homicides happen on the street, then perhaps there is no racial animus. But if you look through data compiled by the Tampa Bay Tribune on cases in which a SYG defense was used, you do not see much of a difference in setting. Some may think that white-on-black shootings are justified more often because it involves the black person as an intruder while black-on-white shootings happen in different scenarios. This is not the case. Black-on-white shootings also occur in the shooter’s home.

None of this is definitive. The answer to the question being asked across America today—would the verdict have been different if Zimmerman and Martin’s races had been reversed—is unknowable. But the available statistical evidence certainly suggests that Zimmerman walked into the courtroom with an advantage that Trayvon Martin would not have had.

52Comments

  1. Homicides Are A Lot More Likely To Be “Justified” If The Corpse Is Black | Alas, a Blog  ::  7:30 pm on July 16th, 2013:

    [...] And from Roman’s follow-up post: [...]

  2. Two women, two tales, one trial — MSNBC  ::  7:02 pm on July 17th, 2013:

    [...] if—individuals are pretending to ignore it. John Roman, a scholar at the Urban Institute, looked at self-defense killings. He found that cases in which whites claimed to kill blacks in self-defense were far more [...]

  3. Tom  ::  5:28 am on July 18th, 2013:

    John,

    Using blanket statistics like those presented here does not accurately portray the realities in the Zimmerman case. You might notice that the white on black and white on white justified shootings are both about 7% higher in the stand your ground states. There is also not a total number in each area which might show skewed statistics. For example, if they only have 10 black on white incidents compared to 1000 white on black incidents the percentages would faulty. I have been in law enforcement for 27 years and one thing I have learned is you can make a statistic read any way you want.

  4. Viewpoints  ::  8:38 am on July 18th, 2013:

    [...] Roman examined Supplementary Homicide Reports submitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation between 2005 and 2010. He posted his findings on the Urban Institute’s MetroTrends Blog. [...]

  5. John Roman (@JohnKRoman)  ::  1:26 pm on July 18th, 2013:

    Tom, first thanks for your service, it’s a tremendously challenging vocation. I agree with your point that it is necessary to understand both the number of cases and the percentages to understand whether there are racial disparities. I would note that the data I used in this analysis included every homicide in the FBI data over 6 years, so I did not in anyway pick and choose cases. Thanks again for your comment.

  6. Dan Nguyen  ::  9:36 pm on July 18th, 2013:

    John, could you post the raw number of cases that you’re basing your two graphs on? Currently, your piece has not a single reference to an absolute number, which in any statistical study, is a red flag. For starters, this makes it impossible to verify whether your methodology or even your data collection is accurate.

    At first glance, the two charts you’ve posted raise more doubt than actual conclusions. How is it that a graph that removes police-related shootings has such a massive increase in the rate of justifiable homicides compared to a graph that purports to include police-related shootings?

  7. Simpson’s Paradox: the logic of racial disparities  ::  9:22 am on July 19th, 2013:

    [...] Tuesday, we wrote about our analysis of FBI data that describe the circumstances under which fatal shootings are more likely to be considered justified. We described the stark disparity between the rates of justifiable rulings in cases with a white [...]

  8. ‘Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom’ And America’s Fear Of Black Men | News Times Today  ::  3:27 am on July 20th, 2013:

    [...] John Roman wrote on a Urban Institute’s MetroTrends blog progressing this week “Drawing from Supplemental [...]

  9. ASU center produces largest flexible color organic light emitting display | Clothes  ::  5:16 pm on July 21st, 2013:

    [...] Read more… [...]

  10. Police Science Institute  ::  7:04 am on July 25th, 2013:

    While thinking of criminal justice then it should be in a correct manner because many people are getting affected from these justice.

  11. Race, Homicide and Stand Your Ground  ::  3:17 pm on July 26th, 2013:

    [...] two pieces in particular have captured some attention, one published by PBS Frontline, and one on this blog. Many readers have expressed interest in learning more about the methods I used to arrive at the [...]

  12. Black Male Students Voice Zimmerman Trial  ::  11:01 am on August 1st, 2013:

    [...] “The available statistical evidence certainly suggests that Zimmerman walked into the courtroom with an advantage that Trayvon Martin would not have had,” said John Roman in a post on the Urban Institute’s MetroTrends blog. [...]

  13. ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws: Civil rights and public safety implications of the expanded use of deadly force  ::  11:45 am on October 29th, 2013:

    [...] There are racial disparities throughout the juvenile and criminal justice system in America. African Americans are more likely to be stopped and frisked, to have their motor vehicle searched at traffic stops, and to receive longer prison sentences than are whites. [...]

  14. White versus black justice | OUPblog  ::  2:30 am on November 4th, 2013:

    [...] to be self-defense jumps to a staggering twenty-nine percent in non-stand-your ground states and to almost thirty-six percent in stand-your-ground states. This means that whites are ten times more likely to be able to kill a [...]

  15. Tom DesJardins  ::  11:58 am on February 16th, 2014:

    I think these statistics need to be broken down more. Such as where homicides done during the commission of a crime (e.g. robbery), done in self defense, premeditate homicide, domestic violence, etc. Each would have a huge bearing on the adjudication result and could skew the statics depending on what buckets the races fall in. I feel the articles statistics really don’t project anything meaningful without that. Am I missing something?

  16. Nathaniel  ::  9:18 am on February 19th, 2014:

    Great article.

    Feel free to surf to my website :: Home made Energy, Nathaniel,

  17. Wayster  ::  9:53 am on August 13th, 2014:

    You can’t just look at the numbers you have to view the circumstances at which the homicide occurred. We’re the justified killers being robbed abd their life threatened? Most certainly.

  18. Michael Brown and the Ongoing Struggle for Racial Justice | All-len-All  ::  4:21 pm on September 8th, 2014:

    […] Central Park in 1989 and whose lives were upended by this miscarriage of justice. A recent Urban Institute study reports that when there is a homicide with one shooter and one victim who are strangers, a little […]

  19. furniture chick at here  ::  8:01 pm on September 10th, 2014:

    Thank you for any other magnificent article.
    Where else may anybody get that type of information in such an ideal
    manner of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m at
    the look for such info.

  20. Harry  ::  6:54 am on November 15th, 2014:

    You can draw many conclusions from this if that is really what you want to do, but the exact circumstances need to be known – that is to say, that if you use these statistics to show that injustice exists, you have to assume that in all cases the perpetrator was in fact guilty – or in all cases not guilty. that is to say, to say that if you do use these stats to show bias, you are saying that the juries made the wrong decision in some of the cases (ie. they either let too many whites go, or convicted too many blacks)- if, in fact the juries got it right, then how does that demonstrate much of anything? This is not a simple situation – most people agree that racial prejudice exists (many kinds of prejudice have and more that likely will for a long time continue) but not to the degree of the past – but there are still those who have to sensationalize it any chance they get — especially those who want to riot after what they call injustice -

  21. Paula Taylor  ::  1:21 pm on November 25th, 2014:

    Maybe the answer is that blacks ARE perpetrating most of the crimes!!!

  22. Allah  ::  1:53 pm on November 25th, 2014:

    Zimmerman had the advantage in the courtroom, because he wasn’t a criminal. Trayvon Martin was. Our politically correct society wants to demonize whites, because they are the easiest scapegoat for all the nation’s ills. People of color overall do not want to accept responsibility for their actions and need someone to blame. Everyone has free will. You either chose to work hard and better yourself or you chose to live off the government and complain that enough isn’t being done for you.

  23. dave  ::  11:34 am on November 26th, 2014:

    Your observation merely confirms that blacks commit more actual crimes that justify their being shot.

  24. Bill  ::  12:08 pm on November 26th, 2014:

    I am shocked at the lack of critical thinking on this blog. While a statistical correlation may exist between white and black crime rates and sentencing, it is invalid to draw a conclusion, such as the cause being due to racism. There may be many other causes. Thank you for your attention to this vital matter.

  25. Mkke  ::  12:43 pm on November 26th, 2014:

    The thing missing is the fact more crime is perpetrated by black people.

  26. Black Belt  ::  12:53 pm on November 27th, 2014:

    The charts are skewed because most of the homicides. With black committing 75% of of Homicides and that that tends to hold for black to black shootings, displaying the data is not balanced. I dont’ buy what yor are selling. A simple box plot would show the data much better , but then the reader could analysis the data as it is vs you take on the matter.

  27. Bill Wright  ::  2:58 pm on November 27th, 2014:

    Zimmerman was part latino, and part black. He had no “advantage” over Martin. Let’s show the statistic of how it is 10 times more likely that a white person will be robbed, rapped or shot by a black person than the opposite, even though there are 3-4 times more whites in the country than blacks. Only when we start talking honestly about race, can we begin to deal with it honestly.

  28. Allen Kinchen  ::  3:59 pm on November 27th, 2014:

    It is amazing how these writers can spin statistics to accommodate their own views about life or the narrative of their agendas .. People are not stupid as they think we are .. Facts are Blacks are committing more crimes per Capita and have a horrible disrespect for the Judicial system. There are many facts this writer leaves out , like education, or if these people have had a father and a mother that actually loved and Mentored them. The break down of the black family is horrible and has sky rocketed . People are sick of so called professional writers spinning their agenda . This opinion is viewed and shared by many people whom do not feel sorry for those in jail or should be in Jail . Many more walk our streets and it takes many crimes normally before they finally are out of our lives for a very long time . Crime has nothing to do with the pigment of their skin . They are making their choice to commit crime . Facts are facts, spinning facts to get someone to feel sorry does nothing to solve the real issues . You writers are contributing to national insanity .

  29. David Cohen  ::  11:29 am on November 28th, 2014:

    I won’t question the statistics across the board, except for how accurately the various groups are defined. Zimmerman is as white as Obama is; and he’s as hispanic as Obama is black- why isn’t the Zimmerman/Martin case defined as Hispanic shoots black? Because then the mass media wouldn’t get as much mileage out of it, Obama would have to admit that a half-white kid like Zimmerman could have been his son as much as Trayvon Martin could have, Holder couldn’t have gotten his panties in as much of a twist, and Al Sharpton would have been severely conflicted in whether or not this was worth his hate-mongering ways.

  30. RBMEOE  ::  11:58 am on November 28th, 2014:

    Could it be that the simple fact is that more blacks commit crimes, are caught, and procecuted than whites? That more blacks attack whites with intent to do bodily harm or to rob and steal than whites attack blacks for the same reasons? That more whites protect themselves with guns today than in days gone by? That more blacks kill other blacks with guns than whites kill whites with guns? You can look at, twist and turn, and use statistics any way you want to say whatever it is you are trying to promote. Get to the bottom line: which race is committing more crime than the others? That will telll you the most of any information you can get!!

  31. michael  ::  1:16 pm on November 28th, 2014:

    Just looking at statistics alone does nothing to really tell what is really going on.

    This “author” and “media” outlet are just making money posting some article that seems to say were racist, while giving no real proof that these numbers mean we are.

    There is NO denying there are real race issues in this country. But implying white people are sometimes racist, while blacks are not, is just plane wrong. Implying white people don’t pay a price for racism coming from black people is just plain wrong.

    The Officer who shot this man who had just robbed a store (violently at that) and was proud to be a drug dealer who beat him will have to go the rest of his life paying the price for that mans poor choices. We’ve had several cops shoot unarmed people (and kill them) locally these last few years. NEVER made News like this. I have little doubt one was extremely wrong (criminal).

    Its a shame the news media sensationalizes cases where black men think they can beat up white men and NOT be shot.

    The kid in the park (shot last week) is a good case to take up for Cops shootings and abuse of power. If Cops don’t understand they have to be sure a person is going to shoot them before they shoot, then, don’t be a cop.

    Its a shame media outlets, and the POTUS, are so racist. They hurt the real issue. Cops abusing their power. Darin Wilson was no such case.

  32. Brooks  ::  11:13 am on November 29th, 2014:

    Wonder what the rate of murders is, black on black vs. white on black or even black on white. Or do the writers of this article really care?

  33. TB  ::  12:43 pm on December 1st, 2014:

    Are you considering anyone not black as white? Zimmmeran was Hispanic. According to loan, job, and scholarship applications, there is a difference between White and Hispanic. Lastly, figures lie and liars figure. You can draw any number of conclusions from this data.

  34. Data  ::  12:44 pm on December 1st, 2014:

    Based on the data it looks like blacks kill nearly twice as many whites as whites kill blacks. Considering the population distribution of black vs white this is a very high number. Does this indicate blacks are more aggressive than whites?

  35. FairlySpeaking  ::  9:51 am on December 4th, 2014:

    The graphs are deceiving as they don’t provide per capita data showing how many black or white people are counted in the sample. For example… In Tennessee Memphis has 63% blacks in Memphis but only 16.7% in the state. So in Memphis alone these graphs posted here would look a whole lot different… right?

  36. Harlon Katz  ::  12:17 pm on December 5th, 2014:

    What your “statistics” don’t show is the number of cases where the black person is killing a white “victim”, as in a robbery attempt or other, vs the white person killing the black person that is attacking them.

    White people are about TWICE as likely to be killed by a black person (~15%) vs a black person being murdered by a white person (~7.8%) (where white people includes pretty much all “Caucasians”). These stats are from the FBI. Blacks are also at least SIX TIMES more likely to the murderers of people in general than than white people, when you adjust for the percentage of the population.

    So, your last comment about us not knowing about what would have happened in the Zimmerman/Martin case – well, the reason is the odds are great that it would never happen.

  37. Aaron geez  ::  4:26 pm on December 6th, 2014:

    Stats are only good because of data collected there are so many unreported uncollected data on this matter that has occurred over decades… So stop with the “check the stats” bulls$&@!

  38. lynn wood  ::  12:15 pm on December 7th, 2014:

    This report reveals what? What is indicated?

    Why is there such a disconnect in conduct between the two groups. What are the core values that are held or not held within each group and attitude towards the other group?

    There is more than just racism indicated in the measures counted in these groups.

  39. John Donovan.  ::  12:31 pm on December 8th, 2014:

    You want stats? Blacks murder at a rate of 54 : 1 over whites. That’s a stat. Blacks and Hispanics are the offenders in 93% of all murders committed in the USA. That’s a stat. I have lots of stats. You want more?

  40. CKJAGUAR  ::  7:58 pm on December 9th, 2014:

    Justice by statistic is hard to justify in reality. Statistically 5 times more men than women are incarcerated. Clearly this is statistical injustice. But only liberals would try to use it to release 80% of the prison population, or jail 5 times as many women. Even they might have trouble with that logic.

  41. White&Proud  ::  11:04 pm on December 9th, 2014:

    Maybe if black males aged 15-50 didn’t commit 40% of the crimes we wouldn’t have these discrepancies that disturb you so much.

    In the meantime, those of us who pay the taxes that support Section 8, Food Stamps, and welfare are going to defend ourselves whether you like it or not.

  42. Mike  ::  11:42 pm on December 10th, 2014:

    I believe Dr. Roman’s analysis is in error. The data actually indicate no bias in justifiable homicide rulings. His error is that he normalized by attack rates rather than by victim rates. Essentially his percentages, and the claim that they should be equal, imply that the number of times a group member is attacked and ends up killing the attacker in self-defense should correlate with the number of times a member of that group goes out and kills without provocation. That makes no sense. The number of self-defense killings should correlate with the number of times the group is attacked, not with the number of times it attacks. If we assume blacks and whites respond the same to being attacked (both equally likely to end up killing their attackers in self-defense) we would expect the number of justifiable homicides to track the number of times each group attacks the other. That is just what we find. According to FBI statistics interracial crime is black-on-white at about an 8:1 ratio. Taking the lower left plot in the article shows a total of 14 justifiable black-on-white homicides (2.8 percent of 499) and 80 justifiable white-on-black homicides (29.3 percent of 272). The ratio 80:14 is about 5.7:1, or a little less than the 8:1 expected ratio. The other plots show similar results. So when accurately analyzed, the data show that whites have the odds stacked slightly against them in having a homicide ruled justified. In truth with such a small data set NO conclusions are strongly supported, but certainly the claim that the data show a bias against blacks is simply wrong.

  43. Roger  ::  1:02 pm on December 11th, 2014:

    First problem with your article: In a “justifiable” homicide, the person holding the weapon is not the “perpetrator” and the dead guy is not the “victim.” The dead guy is the perpetrator and the live guy is the survivor.

  44. jj  ::  10:58 pm on December 11th, 2014:

    So I guess all the blacks in prison were set up? Come on this is stupid. Blacks commit more crimes, it’s a fact this story is a fairytale.

  45. lillie  ::  3:32 pm on December 12th, 2014:

    With all these white cops killing our black boys, girls, women and men, what due black cops have to say? I know there has to be a black cop with the whit cop sometime.

  46. C Taylor  ::  4:51 pm on December 12th, 2014:

    I look at this article and read the comments and I’m like WOW!!! It saddens me but disgust me more how some of people think. Term used in some the comments like “those people” are a part of what’s supporting the racial divide. Fact, every white person is not racist. Fact, every black person is not a criminal, have criminal tendencies, is a thug or believes that every situation is about racism. The insensitive stance and lack of acknowledgement that racism, even overt racism might be taking place is infuriating. This is no different than the time when men told women they were being too sensitive if they complained about being harassed. Men just couldn’t understand how their actions made women feel. Today, most men (not all) know better and do better. One comment said Zimmerman was not a criminal and Martin was. How did they draw that conclusion? Treyvon Martin was a teenager with no criminal history. Yes he did some dumb things like a lot of teens do however, the suggestion that his “past” actions made him deserving to be shot feeds that insensitivity of racism. Why is the victim being victimized? You say Zimmerman feared for his life. How do you think Martin felt having a strange man follow him especially when he was doing nothing but minding his business walking home? I guess he doesn’t deserve to have fear because of the dumb stuff he did in the past. Far too many people want to bring up a person’s past to justify why that person deserved their fate. Isn’t that what we used to do to sexual assault and rape victims? I can go on and on with this but one thing is for sure, you can’t fix a problem until you recognize and admit there is one. I am sure someone will find fault with what I wrote and that’s ok. Just think about this, if your spouse says something that hurts your feelings, how would you feel if they then told you’re imagining things because what they said was not hurtful? Yeah that’s how I feel when I’m told a racist situation doesn’t include racism. Black people shouldn’t expect to make a situation it racism to fit their needs and white people can’t say that it’s not racism to fit theirs.

  47. L. Gilbert  ::  5:49 pm on December 12th, 2014:

    Especially when the subject is a “hot-button” issue, attaching a graphic like an easy-to-read bar graph (with incomplete information) along with an article that few will read is one way public opinion is erroneously represented. So many people will lazily trust the graphic to represent the truth, whether the article is accurate or not.

  48. Starley  ::  9:36 pm on December 13th, 2014:

    I think you need to look at the crime rate per 100,000 in same race murder to define a significant difference. Using CDC 2012 rates homicide rate is at 19.08 for blacks and 3.16 for whites. Since most homicide is same race on same race it shows the homicide rate per 100,000 to be about 6 times higher for black than white.

    If the 6 time higher were to hold just for crimes in the population including attacks of blacks against whites vs whites against blacks the different conviction rate actually makes sense. It is comparable to same race murders. The CDC which does not deal with convictions but only homicide as one person killing another.

    Now I have to switch to UCR for interracial murders. B kills W was 431. W kills B was 193. So the rate is 2.23 times higher for blacks killing whites in raw numbers. Using percentage figures of population blacks are much higher offenders per 100,000 population than whites. About 15 times higher. But then there is the repeat offender factor. Since blacks are 1/6 the population of whites the equal number is actually a murder rate 6 times higher than the rate for whites for intraracial and about 15 times higher offense rate for blacks killing whites.

    Assuming the B/B numbers reflect no bias, the much higher murder rate on intraracial plus the higher interracial raw numbers indicate there may be some validity in the higher conviction rates in mixed race homicides.

  49. Starley  ::  9:57 pm on December 13th, 2014:

    Let’s look at the graphs closer. 6 years is 2271 black kills white and 1060 white kills black in non-SYG states. Almost 2 to 1 kill rate for the blacks while the white population is 6 times higher. That already states a significantly higher murder rate by black offenders. In SYG states 2380 vs 1009 with blacks again killing over twice as many whites. With the 13% black population vs 77% white it says that the percentage different may be justified as blacks are killing way out of proportion to their population.

  50. Human- Ameraican  ::  12:44 pm on December 15th, 2014:

    Its time the media started to bring the country together instead of pushing everyone farther apart. When the leaders in the country cant say or do anything about its us that should stand up and say something….So here is mine. Stop with all the B.S.; its old and dumb. I’m tired of seeing us torn apart. We as a people will and shall always be stronger together than pushed apart. Stop letting lawyers and paper-pushers make stupid calls and that make no sense. Who ever reads this please pass this word of mine. I want this country to know the American spirit is still alive and this is the greatest country ever worth fighting for. Stop with all the B.S.

  51. Michael  ::  9:17 am on December 16th, 2014:

    Zimmerman isn’t white and his head was being bashed in the ground by his perpetrator so he was forced to defend himself. He also didn’t use stand your ground defense, he went to trial by a special prosecutor and the jury found him innocent – not justified – but innocent. If cases like Zimmerman are in your stats then your stats are inaccurate and the commentary skewed.

  52. Fallon  ::  10:21 pm on December 16th, 2014:

    Trayvon, according to one very-experienced Public Defender, would have most likely gotten his own self convicted, had he beat Zimmerman:

    “Unlike people of other races, blacks never see their lawyer as someone who is there to help them. I am a part of the system against which they are waging war. They often explode with anger at me and are quick to blame me for anything that goes wrong in their case.

    Black men often try to trip me up and challenge my knowledge of the law or the facts of the case. I appreciate sincere questions about the elements of the offense or the sentencing guidelines, but blacks ask questions to test me. Unfortunately, they are almost always wrong in their reading, or understanding, of the law, and this can cause friction. I may repeatedly explain the law, and provide copies of the statute showing, for example, why my client must serve six years if convicted, but he continues to believe that a hand-written note from his “cellie” is controlling law.”

    http://www.amren.com/features/2014/05/confessions-of-a-public-defender/