The stale statis­tic that 1 in 3 black males ‘born to­day’ will end up in jail

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - glenn.kessler@wash­post.com GLENN KESSLER

“A black male baby born to­day, if we do not change the sys­tem, stands a 1 in 3 chance end­ing up in jail. This is an un­speak­able tragedy.”

— Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.), in­ter­view on “Char­lie Rose,” June 11, 2015

This was an in­ter­est­ing factoid of­fered by the Ver­mont sen­a­tor, who is seek­ing the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. It pops up regularly in media ac­counts, in­clud­ing on The Washington Post’s Web site when San­ders ear­lier in June called on Congress to spend $5.5 bil­lion on job-train­ing pro­grams.

But what’s the source of this statis­tic and how ac­cu­rate is it?

The Facts

In 2013, a Washington-based ad­vo­cacy group called the Sen­tenc­ing Pro­ject is­sued a re­port on racial dis­par­i­ties in the U.S. crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that was sub­mit­ted to the U.N. Hu­man Rights Com­mit­tee. The re­port spawned head­lines such as this one in the Huff­in­g­ton Post: “1 In 3 Black Males Will Go To Prison In Their Life­time, Re­port Warns.”

But if you ac­tu­ally read the re­port, one would see the source of the in­for­ma­tion was another re­port is­sued by the group in 2011, ti­tled “Ad­dress­ing Racial Dis­par­i­ties in In­car­cer­a­tion.” But this time the ci­ta­tion was sim­ply “(Bon­czar, 2003).” That ul­ti­mately led to a 2003 re­port is­sued by the Bureau of Jus­tice Sta­tis­tics and writ­ten by Thomas P. Bon­czar, a Jus­tice Depart­ment statis­ti­cian.

That’s the ac­tual study that pro­duced the “1 in 3 black males” pre­dic­tion — if 2001 in­car­cer­a­tion rates re­mained con­stant.

Al­ready, you can see there is a prob­lem. Re­porters and politi­cians have been treat­ing as “new” an es­ti­mate that was at least 10 years old — and cit­ing the hard work of the Jus­tice Depart­ment as the fresh in­sights of an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion.

BJS of­fi­cials say that the re­port has not been up­dated be­cause of bud­getary is­sues and time con­straints, but they hope to take on the pro­ject in the next year or two.

The orig­i­nal es­ti­mate re­lied on a time-con­sum­ing and dif­fi­cult sur­vey of pris­on­ers to de­ter­mine how many were in their first jail term. Although the pris­oner sur­vey was done again in 2004, no up­dated es­ti­mate was is­sued, in part be­cause of tech­ni­cal rea­sons hav­ing to do with changes in Cen­sus Bureau method­ol­ogy.

But in the mean­time, although in­car­cer­a­tion rates for white and His­panic males have more or less held steady be­tween 2001 and 2013, the in­car­cer­a­tion rates for black males have de­clined.

In fact, BJS re­ports show that 2001 rep­re­sented the high point, with 3,535 black males per 100,000 U.S. res­i­dents im­pris­oned in state and fed­eral pris­ons. The fig­ure has steadily de­clined ev­ery year since and, as of 2013, stands at 2,805 per 100,000. In other words, the in­car­cer­a­tion rate for black males fell 20 per­cent since 2001.

It’s im­por­tant to note that these num­bers rep­re­sent all peo­ple im­pris­oned as of Dec. 31 and so in­cludes re­peat of­fend­ers. So it’s a dif­fer­ent data set than the one used for the “1 in 3” statis­tic, but it does in­di­cate that the 2001 num­bers may be too high for use in 2015.

“These changes sug­gest that rates of first in­car­cer­a­tion may also have changed since 2001 and, con­se­quently, that the life­time like­li­hood of in­car­cer­a­tion in prison may have changed for some groups, but it is not pos­si­ble to cal­cu­late the amount of any change,” Bon­czar said. He added: “It’s likely the first life­time in­car­cer­a­tion rate for black males has de­clined. How much, I don’t know.”

He noted that in 1997, an ear­lier ver­sion of the sur­vey us­ing 1991 data cal­cu­lated that 28.5 per­cent of black males were likely to be ad­mit­ted to prison in their life­time, com­pared with 32.2 per­cent in the 2001 re­port. That was still sig­nif­i­cantly higher than the rates for His­panic or white men.

“Given that im­pris­on­ment rates are now on the de­cline, clearly the model used in the preva­lence re­port isn’t valid any longer, and when we do get enough staff to be able to pick this pro­ject up again, we prob­a­bly should con­sider giv­ing pro­jec­tions based on sev­eral pos­si­ble fu­ture di­rec­tions for the im­pris­on­ment rate,” said E. Ann Car­son, another BJS statis­ti­cian.

Marc Mauer, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Sen­tenc­ing Pro­ject, ac­knowl­edged that with the black rate of in­car­cer­a­tion de­clin­ing since 2001, it’s pos­si­ble that life­time chances might have de­clined by as much as 20 per­cent, yield­ing an es­ti­mate that about 1 in 4 black males can ex­pect to end up in jail. “But even that lower fig­ure should be highly dis­turb­ing, re­gard­less of what one be­lieves the causes may be,” he said.

He also ac­knowl­edged that the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s doc­u­ments should be more trans­par­ent about the age of the data, although he says he makes that clear in public talks and slides.

“Although we do a great deal of anal­y­sis of BJS data, al­most all of our orig­i­nal sources are from BJS and we al­ways pro­vide the ap­pro­pri­ate ci­ta­tions to make that clear. But in many cases (not just this item) the facts get re­ported as if we had done the orig­i­nal re­search,” Mauer said, adding that the same thing hap­pens when the group’s orig­i­nal re­search is cited by sec­ondary sources. “Not sure what the cure is for this type of slop­pi­ness, but hope that The Fact Checker’s in­ter­ven­tion at least makes a dent in this.”

The Pinocchio Test

The ba­sic les­son is: Read the foot­notes. San­ders and var­i­ous media or­ga­ni­za­tions did not do enough due dili­gence to un­der­stand how old these num­bers are. There is cer­tainly lit­tle jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to as­sert that a black male born “to­day” faces these odds of en­ter­ing prison. At best, one can say that a baby born in 2001 faced these odds — if the rate had re­mained the same.

But it looks as if the rate has de­clined, call­ing into ques­tion the “1 in 3” statis­tic. The ac­tual fig­ure is as yet un­known and still could be high. But this fig­ure should be treated with cau­tion un­til BJS pro­duces an up­dated es­ti­mate. Un­til then, this is a Two-Pinocchio statis­tic.

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