Data on Racial Disparities in Criminal Charges in Charlottesville VA

A report on Charlottesville arrest data was recently written and released by Bill Mendez. The open dataset shows interesting (read: alarming) disparities in charges between African American and White residents of Charlottesville. Before summarizing the dataset we’d like to go over a few critical caveats:

1. Though the dataset provides the gender and race of arrestees it fails to provide the age of the individual, whether or not they are city residents, and whether they are of Hispanic descent.

2. The dataset also considers multiple charges as separate arrests disregarding the date. For example, an individual charged with four different offenses on the same day would appear in the dataset as four distinct records, giving the illusion of four arrests.

3. We do not know whether the charges actually resulted in an arrest as defined as the physical act of being taken into custody).

4. Finally, the majority of the analysis takes into account the racial composition of the population and adjusts accordingly for the proportion of African American and White offenders in Charlottesville. The adjusted charge frequency for African Americans was 1,098 per thousand residents and for whites, 240 per thousand.

With that being said, the dataset shows some significant findings on potential correlations between specific offense charges and the race of the individual. The analysis found that for all charges in the dataset, African American offenders were 4.6 times more likely than White offenders to be charged. For specific offenses, Adjusted frequencies were more than 10 times higher for African American offenders than for White offenders. The ratios ranged from 0.6 for “Illegal Possession/purchase of alcohol by adult” to 24.4 for “Firearm: Possession by Nonviol. Felon within 10 years”. Here are the top offenses (by ratio) and the calculated ratios for each:

Charge Description Number of Charges Adjusted Frequency of Charges, per 1,000 Residents
African-American White Total All Races African- American White Ratio African-American/ White
Firearm: Possession by Nonviol. Felon within 10 years 98 15 113 10.9 0.4 24.4
Drugs: Possess w/Intent to Manuf./Sell Sch I, II 376 100 476 41.9 3 14.1
Credit card Larceny: Take/Obtain Number 84 23 107 9.4 0.7 13.7
Grand Larceny Shoplifting $500 + Over 79 22 101 8.8 0.7 13.4
Strangulation: Results in Wounding/Bodily Injury 92 30 123 10.2 0.9 11.5
License Revoked: Drive w/o License, 1st Offense 131 43 175 14.6 1.3 11.4

Again, it’s important to remember that the dataset used considers each charge as separate arrests. The dataset is more representative of charge information, and thus, does not indicate which of these charges actually led to arrests and which were simply non-arrest charges. Many of the offenses in the dataset often do not result in arrest, due to this, it can be very easy to misinterpret the findings. Although recent national and state arrest data show that African Americans are more likely to be arrested than whites, this frequency is between 2.2 and 3.0. Comparing this to Charlottesville 4.6 combined frequency, it could be that differences are partly due to the caveats mentioned earlier (i.e. comparing true national and state arrest data to Charlottesville’s charges data). Nonetheless, Charlottesville’s data certainly shows a higher likelihood of charges for African Americans even if the charges do not lead to arrests. If you would like to see the remaining analysis, you can download the PDF version here.

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