Thursday, April 3, 2008


"We should all be familiar with the depressing fallout by now. Forty percent of the 2.2 million people in prison or jail are black, 20 percent are Latino. At the current rate, one in three black men will spend time behind bars before they die.

Those are stunning facts, but equally gripping are the ones that make clear how the prison-industrial complex has ballooned with black bodies as a result of Washington's quixotic war on drugs. Since its opening salvos in the early 1980s, the national prison population has grown at a faster rate than ever, according to Justice Department stats—by nearly 700 percent. Take that in for a second, it's a doozy. Now consider this one as well: In 1980, just 25 percent of federal prisoners were locked up for drug charges; today, the number is larger by half than the entire prison population of 1980.

Over the last two decades, conservative thinkers have peddled pseudoscience and played upon white fantasies about urban America to rig the system and produce precisely these results."
"5 Things You Should Know About Crack" Kai Wright |
I've quoted a pretty big chunk of text here, mainly so that I didn't do too much damage to the context.

There's an idea that I want to call attention to here. Many black Americans are upset about the current prison system, convinced that Federal drug policy is deliberately aimed at locking up as many minorities as can be caught and charged. It's a mantra that's repeated again and again, to the point that it's taken as truth, pretty much without question. And it's the kind of thing that, if true, thinking people should be mad about.

But, as it turns out, there are some things left unsaid to help fuel anger at the system. Consider - according to Wright's analysis, the prison population is seven times what it had been in 1980. I'm going to monkey with his numbers a bit, to make the math easier, but if I do the math properly, the overall point should stand. Let's say that the numbers are a bit inflated, and that there are actually exactly 2.1 million people in prison now. If that number is 700% of what the numbers were in 1980, then there were 300,000 people in the federal pen back in 1980. 25% of that 300,000, the number of people that Wright says were locked up on drug charges in 1980, would be 75,000 people. If the number of people currently in prison on drug charges is 150% of the total 1980 prison population, then there are now 450,000 people in the slammer for drugs. But that's only 21.4% of the 2,100,000 that are currently incarcerated. So the number of people in prison on drug charges, while pretty high, has actually declined as a percentage of the total Federal prison population.

But that's not anything worth being angry about, so the numbers are presented in such a way that they do a little cloaking of the truth. And not very well, I might add. After all, I'm not what you would consider to be a wizard at math, and I figured it out.

In a way, it represents progress. Now, it seems, everyone is educated enough to understand how to meddle with statistics.

1 comment:

Keifus said...

Isn't the population of federal prisons only a subset of the national prison population? I don't think we're given enough figures there to solve for the total fraction of incarcerations that are due to drug crimes.

Granted, that wouldn't hurt your point. That is one tortured sentence.