“I said, ‘Yes, all lives do matter, but blacks are getting shot at the rate of six times that whites are. If you’re of color and you’re arrested, there’s a four times greater likelihood that you’ll go to jail than if you’re white.’ … Yes, blacks are being arrested, they are being charged, and they are being convicted at eight times the rate of whites.”
–Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson, interview with Reason.com, Aug. 26, 2016
A reader inquired about the series of statistics in this answer Johnson gave during an interview with Reason, a libertarian magazine. In the interview, Johnson was asked about policies he would enact to promote equal opportunity — such as helping black people who are disproportionately affected by sentencing laws for drug crimes.
In answering the question, Johnson recalled a recent interview with Eric Bolling on Fox News, during which he talked about criminal justice statistics relating to African Americans. But the statistics stood out as curiously high for our reader, so we checked them out.
Rate of shootings
We were perplexed by Johnson’s claim that “blacks are getting shot at the rate of six times that whites are.” There’s no reliable national measure of all people who were ever shot, but not killed, broken down by race.
Johnson’s campaign said he was referring to the racial breakdown of people shot and killed by police, as reported by The Washington Post. So we turned to The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of police shootings, chronicling the most comprehensive database of police shootings than any government agency had ever done before.
In 2015, Post researchers identified 990 fatal shootings, more than twice the number recorded in a single year by the federal government. Black people were shot and killed at 2.5 times the rate of white people in 2015. This rate is adjusted for populations where the shootings occurred. So Johnson’s statistic is not accurate.
Johnson gets it almost right if he’s referring to unarmed black men. The Post’s analysis found unarmed black men were seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be shot. Johnson’s campaign noted this statistic, as well as other findings using the Post’s database, and said the “data is subject to varying interpretations, including some which arrive at a ‘lower’ ratio of blacks to whites.”
Rate of incarceration
Johnson said black people are four times more likely than white people to go to jail after being arrested. Again, this was quite confusing; there’s no reliable national data by race on rates of bookings at local jails or convictions after arrest.
Campaign spokesman Joe Hunter clarified that Johnson was referring to racial disparity in marijuana arrests, per a 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Hunter noted that in the original Fox News interview, Johnson had specified drug arrests: “When it comes to the war on drugs, if you are of color, there’s a four times more likelihood that you’ll end up behind bars.”
The ACLU analyzed national and county-level marijuana arrest data reported by the FBI, from 2000 to 2010. Blacks were 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. The report uses publicly available arrest data and calculates the rate using census population estimates. This report is most often cited for racial disparity in marijuana possession arrests, and is more detailed than the data that federal agencies analyze on a national level.
The ACLU found that racial disparities in marijuana possession arrest exist “regardless of county household income levels, though they are worse in middle income and more affluent communities.” Blacks and whites use drugs, including marijuana, at similar rates.
Such racial disparity has existed for a long time for drug arrests in general. Wonkblog’s Chris Ingraham, resident drug policy expert, wrote that the disparity “partly reflects racial differences in the drug markets in black and white communities. In poor black neighborhoods, drugs tend to be sold outdoors, in the open. In white neighborhoods, by contrast, drug transactions typically happen indoors, often between friends and acquaintances.”
Rate of conviction
Are blacks really convicted at eight times the rate of whites? Hunter said Johnson was reciting a statistic that Bolling had used.
Johnson shouldn’t use this unreliable figure. In fact, there’s no reliable breakdown by race for convictions after arrest, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics has not published a report on racial differences in conviction rates.
Felony convictions are maintained by state courts. The most recent sentencing statistics are from 2006, which show black people comprised 38 percent of convicted felons, even though they represented 12 percent of the adult population. But that was 10 years ago.
Johnson was using the data to explain the “likelihood of more intense enforcement of criminal statutes against suspected black criminals than suspected white criminals,” Hunter said.
He has a point. There is documented racial disparity throughout the stages of the criminal justice process, showing black people were treated less favorably than white people, including in pretrial detention decisions. Among people with comparable criminal records and convicted of the same crime, black and Hispanic defendants were “somewhat more likely than whites to be sentenced to incarceration,” a 2014 National Academy of Sciences study found. And black defendants were less likely than whites to be diverted to punishments other than incarceration.
The theory is that black people are more likely to be held in jail, partly because the black men booked in jail have lower incomes than other races and can’t afford bail. The longer you’re held in jail, the more likely you are to be convicted of the crime due to a variety of factors, including losing your job and not being able to afford a high-quality lawyer.
Black defendants were 3.9 percentage points less likely to be released pretrial compared to white defendants, and that pretrial detention is correlated with higher conviction rates, a 2016 Harvard study found.
“While Gary Johnson is to be applauded for calling attention to racial disparities in the justice system, the disparities we see once relevant factors are taken into account are not as extreme as indicated by his statements,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.
The Pinocchio Test
While Johnson makes legitimate points that are backed by research and data, he loses credibility when he inaccurately spouts numbers like this. He misrepresented the shooting data, generalized arrest data and recited unreliable conviction data.
Data confirm blacks are more likely to be shot and killed by police than whites, and more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites. And there is documented racial disparity throughout the criminal justice system that show black defendants have a higher likelihood of being sentenced to incarceration than whites. But Johnson bungled his talking points that skewed the numbers all out of context.
Statistics are like catnip to fact-checkers. Johnson needs to step up his game and hone his talking points, especially if he’s going to cite numbers on the fly.
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