[Leonard Pitts Jr.] said "a black drug defendant is 48 times more likely to be jailed than a white one with the same record.” Usually I take statistics I read as fact, but this sounded totally unbelievable. In essence, he is saying that judges are 48 times (not 48%, but 4800%) harsher on blacks than whites. So I tracked down the source of this information. First, the report that he cites deals only with juveniles which is not consistent with his statement. But more importantly, the statistic he uses is not there. I emailed him twice about this and today, a week later, his assistant responded with a New York [Times] Article from April 26, 2000 which says:
“For those charged with drug offenses, black youths are 48 times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prison.” (ed: wire story - Seattle PI)
This statistic appears to be attributed to the same source, although the Times was rather vague. Naturally, this does not make the statistic accurate. Perhaps he’ll point me to your article next. I also found that the report misstates its own finding in the “Major Findings” section. I’ve been tracking down other sources he uses and have found other errors; both his and his sources. I think you should be careful what you repeat. Unlike Mr. Pitts, you at least accurately stated where you got the quote, but it’s still wrong information.
I certainly agree that there are a disproportional number of minorities in prison, but I have yet to be convinced that racism is a major factor as Pitts asserts. Regardless, it does his own cause harm when he uses bad information. We need to take the emotion out of this argument and get to the real reasons behind the imbalance.
I agree with Jim that we should not mislead with statistics, and I also agree that this is what Pitts did when he left out the qualifier "youth." I appreciate the fact that Jim was knowledgable enough about the issue to spot the anomoly and persistent enough to try to get an answer. Finally, I'm glad he took the time to share that with me, so I could share it with you.
Here is what I have been able to find out about this statistic:
- Building Blocks for Youth cites And Justice For Some: Differential Treatment of Minority Youth in the Justice System, prepared by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), [as] "the most complete and up-to-date collection of state and federal data on arrest, referral, detention, case processing, waiver to adult court, and incarceration, building a comprehensive view of the treatment of youth of color in the justice system. Among the key findings, the report shows that youth of color are overrepresented and receive disparate treatment at every stage of the juvenile justice system." By Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Michael A. Jones.
- Per the website, Building Blocks for Youth is an initiative of the Youth Law Center. Partners include the Law Center, American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center, Justice Policy Institute, Juvenile Law Center, Minorities in Law Enforcement, National Council on Crime and Delinquency and Pretrial Services Resource Center.
- The Youth Law Center is a non-profit law office which was established in San Francisco in 1978. The board is a mix of corporate (Yahoo!, Safeway), university (Stanford) and legal (firms, individuals, judges) interests. Funding is detailed on the website.
In providing statistics about racial unfairness, advocates must make it clear that such data measure disparate treatment for the same offense. Thus, the second Building Blocks report, And Justice for Some, found that African-American youth adjudicated for violent offenses, with no prior admissions to state facilities, were committed to state institutions 9 times as often as White youth adjudicated for violent offenses with no prior admissions. African-American youth adjudicated for drug offenses with no prior admissions were committed to state institutions 48 times as often as White youth adjudicated for drug offenses with no prior admissions. Similarly, the mean length of stay in state institutions for African-American youth adjudicated for violent offenses was 90 days longer than the mean length of stay for White youth adjudicated for the same offenses. The mean length of stay for Latino youth adjudicated for violent offenses was 150 days longer than the mean for White youth.
If this is the same report Jim found, I agree that these data are not in the report -- at least not in this soundbite. The document is available as a PDF -- which I searched, unsuccessfully, using the number "48." No joy. Is Jim the first person to ask for the source of this statistic?
I had better luck searching for "drugs." In 1998, 66 percent of those under 18 arrested for "drug abuse" (205,800) were white and 32 percent were black (page 7). Of those referred to Juvenile Court in 1997, 10 percent where white and 11 percent were black -- a serious data shift (page 9). In other words, a much higher percentage of blacks than whites were referred to court ... a higher percentage of minorities are "locked up" than whites (page 10) and a higher percentage are likely to be waived to criminal court (page 13). Length of stay is longer (page 23) and the facility is more likely to be public than private for all minorities than for whites (page 19).
However, the risk factor of 48 does not appear in the report -- only in talking points that reference the report. Given that the report provides no breakdown by first offender status, I do not see how this soundbite could have this report as its provenance.
But guess what? I did find the statistic in a report restricted to Illinois. Yet another forgotten caveat?
I'm sending a copy of this to the Youth Law Center for their response. Stay tuned, but don't hold your breath.
Disappointedly yours, Kathy.