Things can only get better ... I hope.
Prison Rates Among Blacks Reach a Peak, Report Finds (NY Times, April 7, 2003, registration required): An estimated 12 percent of African-American men ages 20 to 34 are in jail or prison, according to a report released yesterday by the Justice Department. The proportion of young black men who are incarcerated has been rising in recent years, and this is the highest rate ever measured, said Allen J. Beck, the chief prison demographer for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the statistical arm of the Justice Department. By comparison, 1.6 percent of white men in the same age group are incarcerated. The report found that the number of people in United States jails and prisons exceeded 2 million for the first time last year, rising to 2,019,234.
Over the next few years, I would expect that the number of people in prisons will drop slowly. Not because of any change in actual social policy or thought, but because states simply can't afford to imprison people for comparatively minor nonviolent offenses any more.
Interestingly, the article uses the issue of black men in prison as its lead, and then doesnt mention that aspect again until the end.
Mr. Beck said that the 12 percent of black men in their 20's and early 30's in jail or prison was "a very dramatic number, very significant." That is just the rate on a given day, Mr. Beck said. Over the course of a lifetime, the rates are much higher, he said. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has calculated that 28 percent of black men will be sent to jail or prison in their lifetime.
And yet, somehow, the nation remains serenely unconcerned about the fact that nearly 30 percent of one group will be sent to prison, or the reasons why that should be so. Even if you accept the argument that blacks simply commit more crimes than others, it simply beggars understanding that the difference between blacks and whites would be that sharp. Either whites are not being caught for a great many crimes which they commit, or a great many blacks are being incarcerated for crimes that they did not, in fact, commit. Both of the latter explanations probably apply.
The actual report itself is fascinating, in a sort of appalling way. For example:
- what on earth is going on in Rhode Island that it experienced a 17+% increase in its prison population in one year?
- What precisely does account for the sharply variant incarceration rates among the states?
- Why are overall 60% of inmates minorities? That would seem statistically rather improbable.
- How is it that the majority of inmates in jails have only been charged, and not convicted? Do conviction rates really drop that sharply from charges? If so, perhaps that would indicate something about the ways in which people are charged with crimes.
- How is it that Los Angeles, with far fewer overall people than New York City, outranks it in the numbers of people imprisoned, and what on earth is going on in Phoenix to put it at number 4 when it is far down the list in overall population?
Of course, all of those are questions of social policy, what is important (or not) to us as a society, and we are not, at the moment, minded to look at those things too closely.
Pity.Posted by iain at April 07, 2003 01:27 PM
Note that "prisons" and "jails" are not the same thing. The reason that jails have more charged than convicted is that that's primarily what jails are for (holding people until bail, transfer, or trial, and for short-term sentences)---see p.7. On conviction, the prisoners are often transferred to a state prison.
-Of course, the reasons for variation of conviction rates with region, time, and race are sources for endless study (and speculation). I don't know much about it, but I think there's a fairly well-accepted correlation with population density (crime rates are higher in large cities), so states with most of the population in large cities will tend to have higher rates.
-Sadly, even though it may "beggar uderstanding" that the black crime rate is so high, it might not be so far off. There's a chart in the FBI UCRs that shows murders classified by race (of both victim and murderer), a 2x2 table. (Murder is a useful statistic because most murders are solved and the identity of the murderer is usually obvious. This reduces the impact of arrest and
conviction bias.) The ones I looked at---about a decade ago; I don't know if things have changed---had approximately the same *absolute numbers* for murders of whites by whites and of blacks by blacks, even though the white population is about 7-8 times as large (a ratio similar to the one you quote for current incarceration rates). Even though there are undoubtedly biases in the police and judicial systems, the underlying problem is definitely real and definitely large. Whether it is explainable by class or some other confounding variable (besides race) I don't know.
-For LA vs. NY, I notice that the "LA" line (if this is the table on p.10 you're talking about) is Los Angeles *County*, which I think has a larger population than New York City. I don't know what's going on in Phoenix, though.
According to the Census, LA County has a population of 9,519,338.
NY City has a population of 9,314,235
So, yes, LA County is larger, although not much. Ranking these things by administrative area -- NY City manages its own prisons, whereas LA County manages the prisons for several cities and towns -- tends to confuse things a bit.
Can't answer the rest of your message offhand, because that will take a bit more research.Posted by iain at April 7, 2003 11:54 PM