The artists John Legend and Common received an Academy Award Sunday night for "Glory," their song in the film "Selma." In his acceptance speech, Legend called for reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. "There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850," he noted.
It's true. There are some, as Politifact has written, 1.7 million black men under some form of correctional control, including probation and parole, excluding those held in local jails on any given day. That is about twice the 870,000 or so black men at least 15 years old who were enslaved in 1850, according to the Census (warning: big file).
In some ways, of course, the comparison is misleading. Although there are more blacks under correctional control now than there were slaves before the Civil War, the population has a whole has grown tremendously in that time. The Census that year found that roughly nine in 10 of the nation's 3.6 million blacks were enslaved. By contrast, one in 11 blacks is under correctional supervision today, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.
And it would be wrong to obscure the horrors of slavery by comparing that peculiar institution to today's systems of probation and parole (although in modern prisons, practices such as solitary confinement are indeed profoundly damaging to inmates).
In other ways, though, these numbers conceal the size of our criminal justice system and its consequences, especially for blacks -- in a society that, unlike that of the 1850s, is supposed to be free and equitable.
To begin with, as I mentioned, jails aren't included here. On any given day, some 36 percent of those jailed are black, and the country's jails record some 11.7 million bookings annually. That doesn't mean that 11.7 million different people are jailed every year, since it's likely that a smaller number of individuals who continually run afoul of law enforcement account for a sizable fraction of the total, as a recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice notes. In any case, it seems likely that a few million black men are jailed at some point every year, although exact figures aren't available.
These numbers also don't include the multitudes of blacks who are convicted felons -- roughly one in three black men, according to estimates from the University of Minnesota's Christopher Uggen. Not all of these men went to prison, but all of them were under the supervision of the courts for some period of time. Nor are all the restrictions on a convict's freedom lifted after that supervision has formally ended. A conviction often bars people from voting, receiving benefits such as public housing and seeking work in licensed occupations.
Even where formal rules barring convicts don't exist, employers are often reluctant to hire otherwise qualified applicants with criminal records. Many economists worry that given the extraordinary number of people with criminal records or convictions, this tendency is making it unnecessarily hard for firms to find workers and hampering economic growth.
Listen to Legend's speech below.