"We have something like one out of four young black men in this country end up in the criminal justice system. They may end up in jail, they may end up on parole, they may end up on probation."

Bernie Sanders on Thursday, August 15th, 2019 in an interview with Cardi B

Do one in four young black men ‘end up in the criminal justice system?’

(AP photos)

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has a new ally in his race for president: Cardi B.

In an interview with the Bronx, N.Y., rapper posted Aug. 15, the senator answered questions provided by Cardi’s nearly 50 million Instagram followers. Around one and a half minutes into the video, Cardi asked Sanders about police brutality.

"We constantly see on social media police brutality against black men and against minorities," she said. "What are we going to do to change that? Because that is discouraging our people. We constantly see our men getting killed every day, and it seems like nobody cares, nobody’s sympathizing, nobody’s talking about it."

Sanders said, "We have something like one out of four young black men in this country end up in the criminal justice system. They may end up in jail, they may end up on parole, they may end up on probation."

We hadn’t heard a one-in-four statistic exactly how Sanders said it, so we decided to check it out.

A Sanders campaign spokesperson sent us three sources: one Gallup poll from 2013, a 2003 report from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics and a 2018 report from the Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform.

Key findings

• None of those sources directly back up his claim, though they do speak to disparities in the treatment African Americans receive in the criminal justice system. 

• Our own research found that federal crime statistics don’t often include breakdowns by sex, age and race for adults. That makes it hard to tell how many "young black men" end up in the criminal justice system.

• Also complicating things is the imprecision of the phrase "young black men." It could refer to juveniles, or reasonably to men younger than 25, or 35. By talking about how one-in-four young black men end up in the system, did he mean while they were young — or their likelihood down the road?

The phrase "end up in the criminal justice system" is vague, said Candace McCoy, a professor in the Graduate Center's Department of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

An old study with worse findings

The best support for Sanders' claim is a 2003 report from the Justice Department — the second source the Sanders campaign sent us. 

The report estimated that black men born in 2001 had a 32.2% chance of going to prison during their lifetime, based on incarceration rates at the time. The likelihood was 11.3% for men overall.

That figure applied to black men of all ages, so we looked closer at the report for age-specific data. 

It estimated that about 681,000 black men aged 18-34 in 2001 had been incarcerated in state and federal prison during their lifetimes. Census data show there were about 4.3 million black men in that age group as of 2000, which would put the imprisonment rate at about 15.7%.

The one-in-three imprisonment stat is about 16 years old. But since 2003, imprisonment rates of black men have declined, lending more credence to what Sanders laid out, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. 

"While there have been no updated analyses of how this affects the ‘one in three’ figure, it seems that ‘one in four’ is a reasonable, and conservative, estimate of the current situation," Mauer said.

Juvenile crime rates

Another way of reading Sanders' claim is to focus on how often black youth currently interact with the criminal justice system. We found that federal crime statistics for black juveniles put offense rates lower than what Sanders suggested.

According to a dataset maintained by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, there were an estimated 212,000 juvenile delinquency offenses, including probation, among black youth (mostly commonly defined as anyone 17 or younger) in 2017. 

U.S. Census data show that there were an estimated 5.25 million black men 17 or younger in 2017. That would put the offense rate for juvenile black men at around 8.7%.

Keep in mind, that doesn’t take into account the proportion of juveniles who end up in the criminal justice system — just the number of cases. 

Federal data lack age, sex breakdowns

There is other data that speaks to overrepresentation of the black population in the criminal justice system, though not exactly to what Sanders said.

Sanders’ campaign spokesperson pointed us to a Gallup poll about black men under the age of 35. It found that about 24% of black men say the police have treated them unfairly in the past 30 days.

That doesn’t prove Sanders’ claim, so we set out to find crime rate numbers for black men under 35. But just like with juvenile data, there aren’t many federal statistics that count crime rates for black men in that age group, which makes it hard to confirm or deny Sanders’ statement.

We wanted to take a look at the three areas mentioned by Sanders during his interview with Cardi: jail inmates, probation and parole. We included prison inmates, too, since the Justice Department has age-specific data for them.

Prison inmates: Of 456,300 black men in state and federal prisons in 2017, about 44.4% were between the ages of 18 and 34.

Jail inmates: There were approximately 250,100 African Americans in local jails. There was no further breakdown by age or sex.

Probation and parole: Of the 3.67 million adults on probation at the end of 2016, about 28% were black. Of the 874,777 adults on parole, that proportion of black adults was higher at 38%. There was no further breakdown by age or sex.

Our ruling

Sanders said "one out of four young black men in this country end up in the criminal justice system."

We found that the senator’s specific claim is not directly supported by federal crime statistics, however you read it. That said, it might be a reasonable estimate based on incarceration trends and older research on crime rates among black men.

Sanders’ statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.