Concerning mendacity

Yes, there are more black men under 35 behind bars than there are enrolled full-time in four-year colleges. Richard Cohen needs to retract his charge of “mendacity.” I’m not holding my breath.

Richard Cohen is at it again. So is Michael Dobbs.

Here’s my letter to Cohen (somewhat edited). I copied Dobbs and Deborah Howell, and got a quick response from Dobbs, who denied copying and asked me to supply some additional numbers (reflected below). I did so promptly; he hasn’t responded again. I’ll report on any further follow-up

Dear Richard Cohen:

When you call someone a liar, you ought to make sure you have your facts straight. Your reliance on Michael Dobbs as a source of truth turns out to have been a mistake. (It turns out that Dobbs didn’t even bother to do his own work; his item is mostly borrowed from a right-wing website.) [UPDATE: Dobbs denies having copied. Duly noted.]

Just to give some background: I teach public policy at UCLA, concentrating on crime control and drug policy. In the Reagan Administration, I ran the policy shop for the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. So — unlike Dobbs — I actually know what I’m talking about.

There were 534,000 black men in prison at year-end 2006. (P. 6.)

There were another 296,000 blacks in jail (as opposed to prison)

Since about 85% of jail inmates are male

that means roughly 240,000 black males in jail.

Another 36,000 black males were held in “secure” (i.e., locked) juvenile facilities:

That gives a total of 810,000 black males behind bars at any one time.

By contrast, according to the Census Bureau there are 370,000 black men enrolled full-time in four-year colleges, plus another 40,000 in graduate school.

As always, the number you get depends on the definition you use. Iain Murray, from whom Dobbs copied, arbitrarily decided that only those under the age of 24 counted as “young.” He also counted part-time and community-college students as “enrolled in college.” So it’s not fair to accuse Murray of “mendacity”: he merely chose the numbers he wanted to make the point he wanted to make.

If you restrict both the inmate population and the college population to the under-35s, the comparable figures are 400,000 behind bars and 380,000 in college.

So Obama’s claim is perfectly defensible, and your reference to his “mendacity” had no basis. You owe your readers a public retraction and, and Sen. Obama an apology.


Mark Kleiman

Second update Now Daniel Schorr of NPR has picked up the same false claim of falsehood.

Schorr also retails the old chestnut about Joe Biden’s “cribbing” Niel Kinnock’s claim about being the first in his family to go to college. In fact, Biden was in the habit of citing Kinnock (by name) to make his point about equal educational opportunity. The claim made no sense if made in Biden’s own name, since he wasn’t in fact the first in his family to go to college. In the exhaustion of non-stop campaigning, on one occasion he recited his usual line but left out the quotation marks.

Schorr also gets on HRC for claiming that Bush has cut the NIH budget. In fact, NIH funding has been just about flat in nominal terms since 2003 which means a substantial cut in inflation-adjusted terms, especially if we use rates of medical inflation as the right measure.

I have great regard for Schorr, and little for Biden or HRC. But I continue to be awed by the willingness of reporters to accuse politicians of lying on the basis of facts and numbers the reporters only half understand.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: