Double-take on Inmate Statistics

The Aug. 29, 2013 US edition of the Wall Street Journal contains a sobering story, “Crime Persists as a Grim Challenge for Blacks“.    The article as a whole contains troubling, heartening, and certainly illuminating statistics from a variety of sources  about the social achievements and problems of different populations in America.

The graphic accompanying the article demands more thought, however.  The image shows the number of inmates (local, state, and federal) per 100,000 people, grouped into men and women, and by race categorized as “Black”, “White”, and “Hispanic”.  Statistics are shown for both 1960 and 2010.  The data originated with the Pew Center, from Census and Bureau of Justice data.    The values for men are:

  • Black, 1960: 1,313
  • Black, 2010: 4,347
  • White, 1960: 262
  • White, 2010: 678
  • Hispanic, 1960: 601
  • Hispanic, 2010: 1,775

The absolute numbers are appalling and should be causing people to ask questions, if not march in the streets.  However, just glancing at the figures, a relationship seems to show up: inmates per 100,000 for each group have roughly tripled between 1960 and 2010. In other words, on average, there are three times as many people in each group who end up in the jail/prison system today as there were fifty years ago.  There are some race-based disparities in the rates, but the rate of increase is still about three.


The first answer that came to mind, probably exposing priors, is “the War on Drugs”, which supposedly began in the early 1970s.  What other explanations account for this data?  Better policing?  More crimes on the books?   Or have Americans simply become three times more likely to become criminals?

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