Are more black men really in jail than in college?

October 11, 2007|By Michael Strambler

Are more black men behind bars than in college? The answer lies in who is doing the counting - and how.

A controversy is brewing about the veracity of this often-stated belief - one that is likely to be amplified by the injustice in Jena, La., and the new census report that more black people live in jails than in dormitories.

Unfortunately, the claims from neither side of the debate provide an accurate picture of the issue. We need to get a handle on the answer so we are not distracted from pursuing the larger question of why so many black men are incarcerated.

Part of the tension around this subject has to do with the film What Black Men Think, which in part aims to debunk the popular negative notions about black men. One point the filmmaker, Janks Morton, argues is that the notion that there are more black men in jail and prison than in college is false. In the film, most of the criticism is directed toward the Justice Policy Institute, which produced a 2002 report that Mr. Morton says sparked all the hoopla. Mr. Morton calls the report a con to benefit the Justice Policy Institute and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the institute, recently reiterated the validity of the report's findings. But the real answer lies between their arguments.

The numbers in question from the Justice Policy Institute report come from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics. The report indicates that there were an estimated 791,600 black men in jail and prison in 2000 and a count of 603,032 in college in 1999. Mr. Morton agrees with the jail and prison number but asserts in his blog that the more reliable U.S. Census Bureau reports that there were 816,000 black men in college in 2000. In the film, he makes comparisons using the same data sources for 2005 and states this number to be 864,000. Furthermore, he argues that it is bad practice to use the entire age range of black males when making these comparisons, because the age range for college-going males is generally 18 to 24, not the 18 to 55 (and up) range of the jail and prison population. Viewed this way, the ratio of black men in college compared with jail and prison is 4-to-1.

Mr. Morton's position that the Census Bureau number is more accurate leads to the assumption that the number is a head count, similar to the decennial census. But the number really comes from the Current Population Survey, which is conducted by the Census Bureau but is not the census itself. This is a household survey administered to a sample of individuals in order to estimate the entire population. The less representative the coverage of the survey, the less sure one can be of the accuracy of the estimated number. And - surprise - the Current Population Survey's lowest coverage rate is among young black men.

On the other hand, the number of college-going black males from the National Center for Education Statistics is from a mandatory institutional survey of all degree-granting institutions eligible to disburse federal financial aid funds (the overwhelming majority). No sampling is involved; they count all the students in the nation. This points to the greater reliability of the national center number over the Current Population Survey number.

Mr. Morton does make a very important point about the need for these kinds of comparisons to use relevant age groups, which the Justice Policy Institute report does not do.

The best evidence thus indicates that as a whole, there are more black men in jail and prison than in college - but there are more college-age black men in college than in jail and prison. It doesn't make for a great sound bite; complex realities rarely do. But perhaps the primary focus of the discussion can now turn to why there are so many black men in jail - and what society can do about it.

Michael Strambler is a psychologist based in Chicago. His e-mail is strambler@gmail.com.

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