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Ron Paul displays stunning ignorance and shallowness on the death penalty

| 3 Comments
The Concord Monitor has this interview with presidential candidate Ron Paul.  He claims to have changed his view on the death penalty based on "study."  From what he says, it appears that his study consists of lapping up the anti side's propaganda the way a dog laps up antifreeze, completely unaware it is poison.

For example, "It's so racist, too. I think more than half the people getting the death penalty are poor blacks."

What did he study to come up with that gem?  The DPIC website?

We don't have firm numbers on "poor," but we have reams of data on race.  As of 12/31/09, the population of death row was 3,173, of whom 1,317 were black. (BJS, Capital Punishment in the United States, 2009, Table 4.)  That is 41.5%, significantly less than half, but I won't quibble over the 8.5%.  Far more important is the logical leap that this ratio somehow indicates racism.

What percentage of murderers are black?  It runs pretty consistently about half.  For 2009 single-offender, single-victim homicides where the race of the offender is known, there were 6,631 total with 3,106 black perpetrators, 46.8%. (Sourcebook of Criminal Statistics, Table 3.129.2009.)  Other years are similar.

Given that the percentage of blacks on death row is about the same (actually a tad less) as the percentage of murderers who are black, how does Paul make the leap to "so racist"?  Probably by falling for the Fallacy of the Irrelevant Denominator and comparing the percentage on death row with the general population.  But the general population is 99+% nonmurderers and hence irrelevant to a calculation about race and the death penalty.

You don't have to be a genius to recognize the correct denominator in this problem.  You only have to think about it a little.  By failing to do so, even while claiming to have studied the problem, Paul demonstrates appalling shallowness of thought.

If you research the issue even a little, you will find that in more sophisticated studies -- even those conducted by the opponents themselves -- the race-of-defendant-bias claim has been blown out of the water.  The studies are discussed in my 2003 Engage article and my 2011 Connecticut Death Penalty Report, beginning on page 14.  For decades, the main controversy has been the race-of-victim-bias claim.  Even there the opponents are off-base, but it takes more digging to see that.  For race-of-defendant, though, it does not take any digging at all.  It's right on the surface, for anyone who bothers to look.  Paul apparently did not.

To say that the death penalty is "so racist" is to say that the people who administer it are racist -- the prosecutors who seek it, the jurors who vote for it, and the judges who impose it.  That is an incendiary allegation, not to be made lightly.  But Ron Paul did make it lightly, based on skimpy information and shallow thought.

3 Comments

All you manage to accomplish here is proving that this man is not perfect. If you prioritize the political issues according to level of importance, this one is not in the top three. Economy is number one, and Paul knows more about how it works and how to fix it than any other candidate. Foreign policy is number two and Paul's non-interventionist position is the safest position we could possibly have. Individual freedom is third and Paul wants us to have more than we've ever had since this country was founded. Why don't you try to focus on a perspective that contributes to society in a positive way instead of trying to contribute to its demise?

We focus on crime and not economics or social policy because that is the topic of this blog.

Our perspective is, in our opinion, very much opposed to the demise of society. It is those who excuse crime and would insufficiently punish it who are contributing to its demise.

If Paul does not know much about the death penalty, and I think it is painfully clear he does not, then he should keep his trap shut until he really has studied it. What I find offensive about his remarks is his claim that his position is the result of study, when it is painfully obvious to anyone who really has studied the topic that his knowledge is a millimeter deep.

Apparently, you think "not perfect" adequately explains Mr. Paul's willingness to smear prosecutors, judges and jurors on the basis of flimsy evidence. If anything, African-American murderers are underrepresented in terms of being executed or getting sentenced to death. Mr. Paul is a member of the House of Representatives and a presidential candidate. He should think before he impugns the integrity of nameless people who are not in the position to defend themselves. What I suspect is that Mr. Paul, consigned to winning or doing well in minor non-binding referendums, is seeking attention and is hoping that his attacks on the death penalty will get him some cred with the media. It belies a lack of integrity. And your excusing his conduct shows basic ignorance.

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