“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?
In 2013, a Washington-based advocacy group called the Sentencing Project issued a report on racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, which 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 report 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. (black male) residents imprisoned in state and federal prisons. The figure has steadily declined every single year since then 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 in an interview. He added that “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, though 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,” he 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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