The blog of the Urban Institute
July 16, 2013

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

July 16, 2013

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.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


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.
While thinking of criminal justice then it should be in a correct manner because many people are getting affected from these justice.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 -
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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 .
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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?
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.
If the murder rate of blacks on whites is twice as high as whites on black , why is is surprising that their cases are less likely to be adjudicated as justified?
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."
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.
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.
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.
The numbers show outcomes but not the "why". What part of the outcomes are due to racial bias and what part were truly neutral? As long as a greater percentage of crimes are perpetrated by blacks both the bias and neutral numbers will be higher. While black fear of police and perception of bias is certainly real, white fear of blacks is also real. Numbers don't lie.
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?
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.
Zero percent of what Roman reports is due to bias. I don't know how to say it simply and convincingly, but the entire report is based on an error -- the belief that the percentage of homicides that are justifiable should be constant across groups. Roman is emphatic (in a different post) that the relative ratio of between the groups is irrelevant, incorrectly calling it an "environmental error". This is clearly not so. What if the crime ratio was 100 percent -- all of the crime was committed by one group? Then by definition none of the homicides by the attacking group would be justifiable, and all of the homicides by the victim group would be justifiable. In Roman's analysis this would indicate absolute (infinite ratio) judicial bias against the attacking group. You argue that the crime ratio is not 100 percent? Of course not, but if you've followed the logic than you've admitted that the crime ratio does matter. Roman's report is a Rube Goldberg machine designed to relabel relative crime rates as judicial bias rates. If you looked at any two groups, say Lithuanians and Liechtensteinians and had Lithuanians attacking at a 6:1 ratio, by Roman's flawed methodology you would find a bogus 6:1 "judicial bias" against Lithuanians. It's maddening that the report has not been retracted. It unfairly maligns our judicial system. It has nothing to do with race or judicial bias and everything to do with analytical incompetence.
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$&@!
George Zimmerman was not a caucasian male. He is not white.
ZIMMERMAN IS NOT WHITE !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!