Jail vs. college debate

My Op-ed in the Baltimore Sun…


Are more black men really in jail than in college?

October 11, 2007

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.


13 Responses to “Jail vs. college debate”

  1. 1 Irvin Peckham January 1, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Thanks, Michael for the sensible data.

  2. 2 tbarksdl January 2, 2008 at 6:37 am

    The most meaningful statistics in this debate are the ones that are ignored. They surface occasionally, but are quickly swept under the rug, because they not only do not support the idea that white racism puts black males in prison–the statistics absolutely refute that belief.

    The statistics you should look for are these:
    1. What percentage of black females are behind bars?
    2. What percentage of black females graduate from high school?
    3. What percentage of black females enter college?
    4. What percentage of black females graduate from college?

    Get those statistics in hand, and then ask this question: If black males were graduating from high school at the same rate as black females; or if black males were entering college at the same rate as black females, to what extent would we be able to say that racial discrimination is no longer a serious problem in the United States? The answer to those questions would prove that white racism is not causing black males to be sent to prison in car load lots.

    So then the only legitimate question would be: What else explains the lack of black males’ success?

    • 3 artisa March 18, 2010 at 9:41 am

      To some extent you are right,it is not white racism sending blacks to jail by the car loads. It is both, the white racism and oppression. The “war on drugs” targets who?? The “get tough on crime” targets who??? Well, in my world the war on drugs targets minorities, not saying they are saints, but in reality it does. To get tough on crime targets monorities as well because the “justice” system only got tough on street related crimes. And who is in a place to committe these crimes? Minorities. If things were equal like the government say it is then they would treat everyone the same, even the rich. But im smarter then that because I know things will never be equal, fair, or just.

  3. 4 Mike January 2, 2008 at 10:06 am

    Thanks a lot for your comments. FYI, this site is now located at http://communitycheckup.com/ . Please go there to see my reply (I’ve transferred your comments there). You can find this specific post there at http://communitycheckup.com/2007/10/16/jail-vs-prison-debate/

  4. 5 douglaskev December 5, 2008 at 8:21 am

    i think it is a curious thing that you stated the debate over whether the fact is true or not is distracting from the more relevant conversation of why so many blacks are incarcerated…but you made no subsequent discussion along those lines?

  5. 6 LeFrancais November 6, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    In poor urban,suburban areas I guess that it might have been a good way to reduce inequality, criminality, poverty etc : more more credits for education, schools, colleges, and then job opportunities in the future.
    I suppose that the government chose the less expensive way, ’cause unfortunately & seemingly (for short sighted leaders) it is far more expensive to manage poor people with education than with prison. A question of money, as often…..

  6. 7 Struan February 7, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Excellent article, some very useful points. Thank you for your well written, thoughtful blog.

  7. 8 bigu May 20, 2011 at 12:22 am

    reading some of this information only clarify what i had been thinkiing, that there are a lot of young black men behind bars and not enough in the colleges and universities whrwe they are so badly needed. Our forfathers are turning in their graves looking at how we as a people have tirn our backs on hard work and pride gave that up for show time life ouick money flashy clothes. What happen to the spirit of sacrifice looking to the future. Personnally drugs and acohol fast living took our focus off what important. People we are dying parents we must be parent to our children and stop wanting to be their friends
    we must be willing to set them down tell them we love them. Our children are our tomorrow.

    In these inner cities we must demand more from our educators.
    All African American males are not a behavioral problem.
    Parents we must see to it that our children get rest a tried child can not learn nor can he/she concentrate. Sleep, a good breakfast, good food, less starch, sugar and salt in the diet more excercise less tv. We got to to do better as parents then we can demand more from our political leaders, teachers, etc. Ihope i didn’t bore you

  8. 9 Cad August 19, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    It is time that we as a people look to ourselves for answers. We must get our children to school on time with the understanding they are there for an education. Our children need to understand they are not going to school for good grades but for knowledge. Grades are just a byproduct of that knowledge.

    We can choose to do better and now is the time. Jail should not be one of the option.

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  1. 1 Tech Check: High School Graduation Rate Trackback on January 3, 2008 at 2:14 am
  2. 2 A Response to Janks Morton | Community Checkup Trackback on January 8, 2008 at 12:03 am

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