“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)

Movie poster for “The 13th,” a new advocacy documentary by “Selma” director Ava DuVarney.
Rising incarceration rates have affected most demographics similarly. An exception is white women (see below). This above graph appears to be a “tripling,” which is clear in the Pew data I calculated below. However, a University of Minnesota Law School paper and advocacy sources like The Sentencing Project, used in Wikipedia, show incarceration rates have “quintupled” during this 40-50 year period. If it’s a five-fold or three-fold increase, or in-between, that doesn’t undermine the data below.

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



Crime Over Time” in Wikipedia.
Crime incidents per 100,000 increased dramatically in the U.S. in the 20th century, as they did for for other countries, too. The U.S. decided to get “tough on crime” while, for example, Scandinavia went a different route. Also unmentioned in the film “The 13th”: U.S. homicide and violent crime rates are significantly higher than most developed nations.


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.”



Again, the murder rate is down by half from the 1990s levels, as well as crime in general. Which factor carries the most weight for the drop: Eliminating lead in gas, abortion, more police, data-driven police tactics (CompStat), or incarceration? Or video games? (It has been considered.) A panel of experts from the National Academy of Sciences said incarceration has had a “modest” effect, apparently. I’m more inclined to believe Steven Levitt’s of Freakanomics-fame: “Crime fell sharply and unexpectedly in the 1990s. Four factors appear to explain the drop in crime: increased incarceration, more police, the decline of crack, and legalized abortion.” Length of sentencing is one area I’m most open to seeking change (along with the War on Drugs) to limit over-incarceration, because usually criminal behavior decreases as one ages. Not many 50-year-olds do stick-ups.


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.)

  • 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.



Nearly 50% of people incarcerated are there for violent crimes. With another 17% there for property crimes.


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.







Obama was the first president to visit a federal penitentiary in 2015.


“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.”



Crime is now increasing again, but many say “Don’t call it a crime wave” yet.

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.

Bias much? The Atlantic does. I once read nearly all 18,000 words of this Atlantic article by staff writer Ta-Nehisi Coates before noticing that he slid in this fundamental statistic at the end: “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.” That important context — which to a great degree undermines his narrative — could be editorial bias, but there’s another bias creeping into mainstream journalism, too: Underwriting. I recognized it after reading another Atlantic article titled, “Has the ‘Ferguson Effect’ Finally Been Debunked?” I found the piece makes no effort to honestly deal with whether crime levels are getting worse as a result of Black Lives Matter and souring post-Ferguson community-police relations; for example, they don’t mention how Chicago started the year with an 80% drop in stops by police, 30% drop in arrests and a 108% increase in homicides (NPR). At the bottom of that article, as well as an interview with Ava DuVarney for “The 13th,” there’s this important footnote: “This article is part of our Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.” I have a paid subscription, but I would love to see if the intelligent nuance I usually appreciate so much from The Atlantic would ever incorporate new data that may undermine the desires of their underwriters, The MacArthur Foundation. The American Press Institute, in an article titled “Unrestricted Funding Vital for Journalism,” is at least raising awareness of this little-known problem: “Funders are increasingly dictating how these funds can be used, pushing journalists to produce work in line with the funders’ interests. While the degree of involvement varies, the American Press Institute survey found that only about one in three funders entirely avoids discussing content with their media grantees. Nearly half of the funders believe that grantees have modified their news reports based on feedback from the philanthropy that is writing the check.” They also wrote in the same article, “In an informal survey, journalism organizations supported by the MacArthur Foundation revealed that 50 to 80 percent of their revenues were restricted. This might mean funding designed to underwrite a particular task, such as hiring a social media specialist, or a particular project, such as a report on an aspect of climate change or politics. Indeed, the API survey found that 8 in 10 funders had given grants in the previous five years to fund specific stories or investigations.” I will add: With ad revenues down significantly for media, I am sympathetic to the need for underwriting. I would see no problem with this except for the fact it biases the media and adds to the cacophony of disinformation that is leading the narrative that the criminal justice system is significantly racist. Alas, as I argue here, it can lead to deadly results — a 31.5 increase in homicides since 2014 — when citizens no longer trust their institutions, take matters in their own hands, or don’t let police do their jobs. The media focus instead? Interpretations of single case viral video examples “proving” unjust policing and anecdote rather than contextualizing for actual crime.
Updated Jan 2017 Caption and Comey image: FBI Director James Comey in October, 2015: “In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns? I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.” Wait, police are effective in reducing violence? Police morale may be down and they may actually be pulling back in today’s Black Lives Matter and ACLU-placating political climate? Ta-Nahesi Coates pretty much thinks FBI Director James Comey’s points are incredulous and “fascism,” which I found in an article with this dismissive ‘Animal Farm’ image above. (Side note: I loved George Orwell’s books in my teens and twenties, but I find as I get older his ideas get over-hyped; I’d be quite alright not seeing the term “Orwellian” for a while.) But what argument can be made today that Comey wasn’t onto something regarding a potential viral video-induced “Ferguson Effect”? Cleveland, Chicago, and Baltimore saw significant homicide increases in the year after viral videos of Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, and Freddie Gray caused protests and national headlines. Nowadays, Chicago police officers aren’t even pulling their guns out to protect themselves when their brains are being smashed on the curb. The emboldening of criminality due to radical policing changes is difficult to argue against, and is even supported by criminologist and one-time “Ferguson Effect” naysayer Dennis Rosenfeld. True, Rosenfeld, a university of Missouri criminologist, wrote a policy brief questioning the Ferguson Effect showing hard data, but now his data tells a different story. Officers in Chicago are saying, “You have to be a complete idiot if you don’t think the climate doesn’t have a role in the rise in crime and murder.” To start 2017, Chicago — and the nation — experienced a “horrific” hate crime, according to President Obama where criminals audaciously live-streamed torturing a mentally disabled person. Oh, and to end the year: There’s an 80% decrease in police stops, 33% decrease in arrests, but 57% increase in homicides (762 total) in 2016 in Chicago. There’s no evidence Chicago police shoot citizens higher than the national average, despite a four to six times higher rate of homicides, or stops citizens in a significantly discriminatory manner. Yeah, not a “viral video effect” at all. There is no solid case to say criminality is “emboldened” — uh-uh. (Insert head into sand.) March 2017 Update: The New York Times is still in denial and celebrates the “de-policing” line by academics, ignoring homicide spikes directly after protests, and not even mentioning the massive increase in violence in Chicago directly after police pulled back. It’s hard not to believe the media narrative has been set, and they don’t want to change it.


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.



Writer. Researcher. Designer. Human seeking better outcomes for all. Empiricism, relevant facts, and logical arguments > simple narratives.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
David Shuey

Writer. Researcher. Designer. Human seeking better outcomes for all. Empiricism, relevant facts, and logical arguments > simple narratives.