“The 13th” and its Glaring Omission: Actual Crime that Mirrors Demographics
While Ava DuVarney’s movie asks important questions on incarceration, it ignores reasons why we lock people up a majority of people in the first place (hint: It’s not drugs)
This week, I saw Ava DuVarney’s “The 13th” (available on Netflix) and can understand how audiences would find it both gut-wrenching and thought-provoking. There’s a lot of horror stories, and an onslaught of information and statistics. The Guardian, unsurprisingly, and most critics loved it. Most intriguing to me was America’s ongoing relationship to private prisons, and the influence of a conservative organization that bolsters private-public partnerships and helps create “Stand Your Ground” legislation called ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council). Though, public-sector prisons lobby just as hard against the interests of prisoners. And privatized institutions only make up 9% of total prisons — a stat “The 13th” conveniently omits. In fact, a strong argument could be made that private prisons serve a purpose of alleviating supply-side overcrowding, making efforts from presidential candidates to activists to ban them ring hollow and likely counterproductive.
Generally, much of the documentary I already knew. In many ways, government is moving towards decelerating incarceration and ending relationships with private contractors for prison systems, as the federal government has done. But the argument of “incarceration = slavery” falls short for me. Because they omit key facts that would entirely change this narrative.
Ostensibly the topic is crime, yet they mostly trumpet unsettling incarceration growth numbers over the decades and censor uncontroversial statistics explaining increases in criminal activity (the quadruple jump in the U.S. violence rate from 1960 to 1991) and overall U.S. population (almost doubled in size). When one looks at the face of non-drug related crime and its victims — which often affects minority groups in the USA — one sees that the incarceration rate closely mirrors the crime rate. Repeat: Mirrors. Roughly, the incarceration rate per 100,000 (not population) has tripled, but so did almost all crime. Indeed, a small but still significant percentage is drug-related (1 in 5 prisoners are there on drug charges), but indisputably there have been double to triple rate increases in burglary, murder, robbery, and sexual assault.
The movie didn’t explain any of this. I will debunk the argument that the rise in incarceration is a clear indicator of systemic racism in 5 parts below, with vetted sources for each section.
The movie starts out with a much-trotted out fact: The United States houses 25% of the world’s prisoners but is only 5% of the world’s population. Yes, shocking percentages and whole numbers (more than 2 million locked up) around incarceration make us shake our collective heads and wag our fingers, if not fly the middle one, but in most categories they reflect real crime that’s actually taking place that is disproportionate by race and and gender. It’s not anything imagined by Republican and Democrat politicians, though their rhetoric is often excessive and unhelpful when it comes to rehabilitation and reintegration of convicted citizens. There’s one key area I’m still trying to fully comprehend, and I may write about later: Crime has trended downward since the 1990s, but up until 2014 the incarceration population has increased annually for 36 years. It’s likely longer sentencing has something to do with this, but what’s rarely answerable is “by how much?” Often unsaid is, “Though problematic corporal stories abound with more than 2 million incarcerated, there’s not that many people we can legitimately set free.” President Obama has commuted more prison sentences than any president in a century, yet it still only affected a few hundred people. Still, I believe every claim for fairer justice should be met.
The tide is turning, partially, thanks to presidential pardons and executive action by President Obama, as well as attempts to lower prison populations by cash-strapped and humanitarian minded state governments — and even conservatives. Not to mention, moral calls to action from Black Lives Matter, movies like Ava DuVernay’s “The 13th,” and books such as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”
At the same time, homicide increased 10% nationwide in 2015, and it’s estimated there will be another 13% increase in 2016 in big U.S. cities, according to the Brennan Center. The Brennan Center also incredibly claims half the increase comes from Chicago — possibly an unreliable claim, I’ve surmised in auditing their data. Perhaps not a “crime wave,” as the left-leaning Brennan Center and others claim. But heads are in the sand if they don’t notice the uneasy relationship between police and citizenry percolating beneath (and above) the surface. “The 13th” reinforces that discontentment.
I. PRISON RATES TRIPLED 1960–2010, SAME FOR ALL DEMOGRAPHICS (except White Women, which increased by 8 times)
Disparities really haven’t changed that much over the decades, with black men today six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated, according to Pew Research. In 1960, it was about the same. Based on the Pew data, from 1960 to 2010:
- Black male incarceration increased 3.3 times
- White male incarceration increased 2.6 times
- Hispanic male incarceration increased 2.9 times
- Black female incarceration increased 3.4 times
- White female incarceration increased 8.2 times
- Hispanic female incarceration N/A
In a fundamental way, this punches a hole in the theory that the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum laws are are blatantly racist. The increases are fairly uniform except for, interestingly enough, white women, which increased by a factor of eight in 40 years.
II. VIOLENT CRIME QUADRUPLED 1960–1991
It’s also true, though rarely mentioned although easy-to-find in Wikipedia pages and other sources, that violent crime nearly quadrupled (4x) and property crime more than doubled between 1960 and its peak in 1991. This is per 100,000 and not shocking bulk jail population “increases” pinned mostly on systemic racism and human indifference, as highlighted repeatedly in “The 13th.”
III. DISPARITY RATES IN CRIME PERPETRATION & VICTIMIZATION: 3 TO 8 TIMES HIGHER FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS THAN WHITE AMERICANS
It’s also true that in quantifiable crime rates, black people in the USA commit crime at a rate 3 to 8 times higher than white people in nearly all crime categories. (Drunk driving is just about the only category where it’s demographically proportional.)
According to Wikipedia’s entry on Race and Crime (with verifiable primary sources):
- Blacks accounted for 52.5% of homicide offenders from 1980 to 2008.
- The homicide offending rate for blacks was almost 8 times higher than whites, and the victim rate 6 times higher.
- The “National Youth Gang Survey Analysis” (2011) state that of gang members, 46% are Hispanic/Latino, 35% are black, 11.5% are white, and 7% are other race/ethnicity.
- According to the National Crime Victimization Survey in 2002, the black arrest rate for robbery was 8.55 times higher than whites, and blacks were 16 times more likely to be incarcerated for robbery than non-Hispanic whites. Robberies with white victims and black offenders were more than 12 times more common than the reverse.
A non-expert viewing the data of both arrest in the FBI Uniform Crime Data and victims in the National Crime Victimization Survey (violence reported by victims), show that violent assault and rape/sexual assault are committed 2–3 times higher for blacks than the general population, with a much wider disparity when compared to whites. Black Americans are just about 13% of the population, but for 2015 were 27% of drug abuse violations, 28% of rapes/sexual assaults, 40% of weapons violations, 36% of violent crime, and so forth.
Again, if the incarceration rate is 6 times higher for African Americans than non-Hispanic white Americans, one has to note that for many of the worst crimes with the longest sentences (rape, aggravated assault, murder), they’re offending at a rate 5 to 8 times higher. And obviously, being poor and not having a good lawyer plays a significant part in jail time, too, but I would argue that’s a “small bias” compared to the larger factor of criminal behavior. 27% of persons convicted of a felony will serve no jail time. Few liberals talk about the large rap sheets people often have before doing actual jail time. Few conservatives talk about the lack of opportunities that causes someone to repeat those behaviors, or the history of racism in the United States that paved the way for the highway of carnage and desperation in inner cities today.
A moral argument should be made to decrease these rates. This begins by understanding the intersection between poverty, class, and race. Then comes action: Leveraging greater resources for schools, jobs, mental health, and community based policing in our poorest communities. We need evidence-based initiatives to alleviate segregation and non-ideological solutions to disparities.
But I see no evidence that disparities in arrest outcomes are because law enforcement is “choosing” to ignore the murder, beatings, and rapes of white people committed by white people.
(FBI Uniform Crime Report Note: “White” includes 90% of the Hispanic/Latino total deducted from the right side of Table 43 in FBI Arrest Data. The FBI website is poorly constructed, IMHO, which I wrote about earlier this month, and explained how to read FBI statistics. For an accurate non-Hispanic white percentage, scroll to the right side, and subtract 90% of the “Hispanic or Latino” percent of distribution. This takes some processing. For example, see FBI arrests in in the “rape” row and do the math: it’s 68.0% for white and 26.8% for Hispanic/Latino; 90% of 26.8% = 24%; subtract 24% from 68% = 44%. Thus, 44% of rape arrests are non-Hispanic whites, which are 63% of the total population. Also note: a vast majority of sexual assaults are NOT reported.)
IV. HOW NOT TO BLAME IT ON SO-CALLED “RACIST” DRUG LAWS
Essentially, 1 in 5 people in prison are there for drugs. Certainly, there’s an argument for structural racism in black people being arrested at a higher percentage for drug violations, despite supposed similarities to the white population when it comes to using and selling illegal substances. (Though, whites are not typically using and selling on the street, nor in high crime areas. This reflects poverty more than anything.) Regardless, 20.5% of Federal and State prisoners are there for drug offenses. Of people in state prison, less than three-tenths of 1% are there for simple possession of marijuana, and 3.6% are there for any drug possession charges. 99.9% of those sentenced to federal prison for any drug-related crime were sent to prison for something more serious than simple possession, according to a 2012 Department of Justice report.
It’s also worth noting that under 13% of arrests are drug-related in 2012.
Here’s a quote the New York Times and The Sentencing Project on disparities reversing course, with facts not presented by people comparing the American prison system to “The New Jim Crow”:
“Incarceration rates for black Americans dropped sharply from 2000 to 2009, especially for women, while the rate of imprisonment for whites and Hispanics rose over the same decade, according to a report released Wednesday by a prison research and advocacy group in Washington.
The declining rates for blacks represented a significant shift in the racial makeup of the United States’ prisons and suggested that the disparities that have long characterized the prison population may be starting to diminish.
“It certainly marks a shift from what we’ve seen for several decades now,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, whose report was based on data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the Justice Department. “Normally, these things don’t change very dramatically over a one-decade period.”
The decline in incarceration rates was most striking for black women, dropping 30.7 percent over the ten-year period. In 2000, black women were imprisoned at six times the rate of white women; by 2009, they were 2.8 times more likely to be in prison. For black men, the rate of imprisonment decreased by 9.8 percent; in 2000 they were incarcerated at 7.7 times the rate of white men, a rate that fell to 6.4 times that of white men by 2009.
For white men and women, however, incarceration rates increased over the same period, rising 47.1 percent for white women and 8.5 percent for white men. By the end of the decade, Hispanic men were slightly less likely to be in prison, a drop of 2.2 percent, but Hispanic women were imprisoned more frequently, an increase of 23.3 percent.
Over all, blacks currently make up about 38 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons; whites account for about 34 percent. [Ed. Note: Stats vary slightly regarding prison population demographics.]
I read all 18,000 words of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ damning anti-incarceration article in The Atlantic titled, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” Interestingly, he took 17,000 words to get to this very important fact that undermined many of his key points: “One 2004 study found that the proportion of ‘unambiguously low-level drug offenders’ could be less than 6% in state prisons and less than 2% in federal ones.” (There are about seven times more prisoners in state than federal penitentiaries.)
V. INCARCERATION IS DROPPING IN 2014
“State and federal prison populations both declined in 2014, marking the first tandem decrease since the Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking the numbers in 1978, according to a report the bureau released Thursday. The combined decrease of more than 15,000 inmates — the second-biggest annual reduction on record — brings the nation’s prison population to its lowest level since 2005 and accompanies a nationwide reduction in crime.”
In Conclusion: More Left Unsaid in Movies, Media & Academia
Could we consider it the law of unintended consequences that at the same moment many Americans believe police are reacting violently due to racial BIAS and not the BEHAVIOR they face, that crime is also increasing? With a double-digit growth in the homicide rate for two consecutive years — again, estimated at 10% and 13% — that averages out to 1500 and 2000 more people killed each year. Half of those are black lives. “Nationally, the murder rate is projected to increase 31.5 percent from 2014 to 2016,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice’s Crime Analysis 2016. Who talks about these numbers? Bias doesn’t create that.
Police officer’s lethal use of force leads to about 1000 deaths annually, just under 10% of persons shot being “unarmed” and four out of 10 of them being African American. But that doesn’t always mean attackers are not lethally dangerous. A handful of the most tragic outcomes involving Black Americans we collectively mourn, witness, and interpret on TV and social networks. Though, why do we never hear about the 60%-75% of them who aren’t non-Hispanic black? (In 2015 according to The Washington Post, approximately 60% of people shot and killed “unarmed” are not black — and ditto 75% of all people killed by law enforcement, which is about 750 victims.)
There will be negligible changes this year compared to last year in terms of the demographics of who is killed by police. No difference in the total, either. Last year, The Guardian calculated that 27% of people killed by police were black, and so far this year it’s 24%. About 1000 will be shot and killed again, 500 white, 250 black, and the rest Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander or Native American. We may hear a monthly news story of someone shot or hurt by police — always black — but we won’t hear how 90% or more are justified. Nor will they write about the dramatic circumstances of each interaction or the localized crime rate that parallels the demographics of the person shot. In short, we as an American public are being shortchanged on context.
The reason black-on-black crime — or crimes committed by African Americans — may be brought up isn’t always racism, though racists love to blindly trot it out. I suggest another reason. It is because it best explains interaction points with police, which I argue should be a fundamental context to be mentioned whenever disparities are hyped in the media. African Americans (13% of the population) are about 25% of the people killed by police. Black Americans are also 27% of the arrests, just below 40% for violent crimes, and around 50% of persons getting killed (and doing the killing) in U.S. society.
Non-Hispanic White Americans (63% of the population) are about 50% of the people killed by police. But they’re around 55% of all arrests, according to FBI data. (Again, absorb 90% of Hispanic/Latino crime data into the “White” column or else you get some liberal Sally Kohn false numbers that say white men are responsible for a vast majority of violent crime.) Non-Hispanic whites also responsible for around 40% for the most violent crimes and just under 30% of the total annual murders. There’s also slightly more whites murdered than white murderers. Little known fact: 4% of black homicides are by police, and nearly 12% of white homicides are by police — and for that shocking statistic you can check my math at the bottom of my Medium post defending Chicago police actions based on hard evidence and data, as opposed to their vilification by isolating video content. Until someone proves to me how my data analysis is wrong, I’ll stick by this: Police are in high crime areas doing their prescribed job — with the occasional tragic mistake or “problematic” but justified killing — perhaps, because black lives DO matter to them.
Also, it’s the USA. “We’re #1” on guns to make police hyper-vigilant — one for every man, woman and child in the United States. Well over 50 cops will likely be shot and killed this year, a 50% increase from 2015. (The final tally: 63 police killed by gunfire.) When people say cops aren’t killing many citizens in other countries, it’s also true cops are rarely getting shot and killed in other countries, too. Of British officers killed in the 2000s, here’s the breakdown over 10 years: 3 shot, 3 stabbed, and 15 others died mostly in car accidents.
I think it’s time academics and the media start talking about the elephant in the jailhouse room: The Ferguson Effect.
Let me end this post with a collective, “We.” We’re in this together. We called the Ferguson Effect a “Big Foot” myth in 2015. And we wring our hands and ignore the obvious — sometimes changing our minds some — in 2016. Or we omit rising crime rates in Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee and St. Louis performing mental twister with crime data when we ask, “Has the ‘Ferguson Effect’ Finally Been Debunked?” (See heavily sourced caption above for potential underwriter bias with The Atlantic.) We won’t move forward to limit pain — from injustice, from racism, from crime — until we acknowledge our biases, and occasional allergic reaction to the growing evidence. Or if we solely look at evidence through an ideological prism.
What will 2017 tell us? Will it be too late?
Says the Washington Post regarding the increase in crime last year:
The recent increases in crime come amid intense scrutiny on police officers and how they use deadly force, an issue that emerged as a central national debate after an officer fatally shot a teenager in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. Since then, protests has continued to crop up in cities nationwide, most recently in Charlotte, which just days ago saw violent demonstrations erupt after an officer fatally shot a man there.
This intense focus on how law enforcement uses force has caused many officers to say they feel like they are under attack, a sentiment that flared up again after a three-day span in July that saw deadly shootings of and by police officers. Comey has been among those questioning whether this increased scrutiny has played a role in the uptick in violence, asking whether it is occurring because officers are pulling back due to the negative attention. This theory is known as the “Ferguson Effect,” and in a report released this summer, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld said he believes there is a connection between the crime levels and criticism of police.
Lately, I’ve come to think that FBI Director James Comey is among the most honest public officials out there from DC to LA. At least he doesn’t care to play politics. Well, at least in obvious ways. He managed to piss off both Clinton fans and Clinton haters by not prosecuting her for using a private email server, but by also calling her actions “extremely careless.” He first infamously invoked “The Ferguson Effect” in May 2015, much to the ire of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and President Obama. Though, he speculated again five months later that policing has changed in the “age of viral videos,” he also urged law enforcement leaders to end the us-vs.- them war of words with protesters from Black Lives Matter. He doesn’t straddle the middle as much for yearn for common ground.
He also wants to increase minority hiring in the FBI, which is overwhelming male and white. And he has a strong desire to continue to engage — listening to each other, empathetic and openly— about the topic of crime and race.
Thus, I’ll leave you with FBI Director Comey, in a 2015 Georgetown University speech on law enforcement and race. His words I highly recommend hearing or reading if you have an open mind and keen interest in this important topic.
A second hard truth: Much research points to the widespread existence of unconscious bias. Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. In fact, we all, white and black, carry various biases around with us. I am reminded of the song from the Broadway hit, Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Part of it goes like this:
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
[AND LATER, ADDRESSING DISPARITIES THAT INDICATE IT’S NOT BIAS]
So why has that officer — like his colleagues — locked up so many young men of color? Why does he have that life-shaping experience? Is it because he is a racist? Why are so many black men in jail? Is it because cops, prosecutors, judges, and juries are racist? Because they are turning a blind eye to white robbers and drug dealers?
The answer is a fourth hard truth: I don’t think so. If it were so, that would be easier to address. We would just need to change the way we hire, train, and measure law enforcement and that would substantially fix it. We would then go get those white criminals we have been ignoring. But the truth is significantly harder than that.
The truth is that what really needs fixing is something only a few, like President Obama, are willing to speak about, perhaps because it is so daunting a task. Through the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, the President is addressing the disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color. For instance, data shows that the percentage of young men not working or not enrolled in school is nearly twice as high for blacks as it is for whites. This initiative, and others like it, is about doing the hard work to grow drug-resistant and violence-resistant kids, especially in communities of color, so they never become part of that officer’s life experience.
So many young men of color become part of that officer’s life experience because so many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education, and decent employment — they lack all sorts of opportunities that most of us take for granted. A tragedy of American life — one that most citizens are able to drive around because it doesn’t touch them — is that young people in “those neighborhoods” too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison. And with that inheritance, they become part of a police officer’s life, and shape the way that officer — whether white or black — sees the world. Changing that legacy is a challenge so enormous and so complicated that it is, unfortunately, easier to talk only about the cops. And that’s not fair.