Ben Carson -- who along with fellow Republicans Carly Fiorina and Mike Huckabee announced their candidacies for president this week -- made a provocative claim about young black men during a speech in Milwaukee on April 22, 2015..
Keynoting a fundraiser for an organization that tutors inner-city children, the retired Johns Hopkins Hospital neurosurgeon told the audience how schools and a strong mother helped lift him from poverty and brushes with crime.
"Many have said the young black male in America is an endangered species. Why do they say that?" Carson continued. "Because of the high homicide rate, particularly in our large, inner cities; because there are more young black males involved in the criminal justice system than there are in higher education."
Are there more young black males involved in the criminal justice system than in college?
To back Carson’s statement, a spokeswoman for his presidential exploratory committee initially cited a December 2014 factcheck from PolitiFact Rhode Island that touched on the first part of Carson’s statement. That factcheck was on a claim that there were more African-American men in prison or jail, or on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850. Our colleagues rated it True.
But that rating doesn’t help Carson’s claim, given that the figures pertained to all adult black males in the criminal justice system, rather than young ones.
When we contacted the spokeswoman again, she cited statistics for black males ages 18 to 24, which would correspond to young black males in college. The statistics cited for involvement in the criminal justice system are from a U.S. Department of Justice report on arrests in 2010.
But that report counted the number of arrests of black people, not the number of black people arrested. Some people, of course, get arrested more than once in a year.
Aside from that, there’s also an issue with using arrests as a definition for being involved in the criminal justice system. There’s no dispute that someone who is in jail or prison, or is on probation or parole, is involved in the system. But many arrests go away without any criminal charges being filed. And not all charges result in convictions.
"Involvement in the criminal justice system is usually defined as being in prison or jail or being on probation, parole, or pretrial supervision," Craig Prins, research director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told us. "Even under that standard definition, it’s very difficult to say with certainty how these numbers stack up because the data rarely identify offenders across all three variables of age, race, and sex."
Indeed, as we’ll see, the federal government does not produce many criminal justice statistics that count black males ages 18 to 24.
Criminal justice system
We contacted the Department of Justice about Carson’s claim and were referred to several reports for the latest figures.
Arrests: There were nearly 3 million arrests of black adults in 2012. (And again, that’s a count of arrests, not people.) But there is no breakdown for black males ages 18 to 24.
Prison inmates: There were 526,000 black males in state and federal prisons in 2013. About 14.3 percent, or roughly 75,000, were between the ages of 18 and 24.
Jail inmates: There were 261,500 black people in local jails in mid-2013. But there was no breakdown for the 18 to 24 age group.
Probation and parole: More than 4.75 million adults of all races were on probation, parole, or some other type of supervision in 2013. But no breakdown by age is available.
So, there is only one solid figure -- 75,000 black males ages 18 to 24 in prison. We’re not aware of any recent counts of the black males in that age group who were arrested, in jail, or on probation or parole at a particular time.
The higher education part of Carson’s claim is easier to sort out.
The U.S. Census Bureau counts by race and with age breakdowns the number of people enrolled in school. For higher education, that includes full- and part-time students in universities and colleges, technical colleges and other institutions that award two-year degrees, and professional schools such as law schools that award advanced degrees.
The latest figures, for 2013, show there were 690,000 males in college, ages 18 to 24, who listed black as their race. The number grows to 779,000 if you include males who identified themselves as black and some other race, such as Asian.
Carson stated: "There are more young black males involved in the criminal justice system than there are in higher education," later saying he was referring to the 18 to 24 age group.
Carson did not provide evidence that backs his claim. The latest federal figures we found show 75,000 black males in that age group who were in prison in 2013 and in the range of 690,000 to 779,000 who were in college. We are not aware of any recent figures for the number of black males ages 18 to 24 arrested, in jail, or on probation or parole at any particular time.
If figures do surface, we’ll re-evaluate this item, but we rate Carson’s claim False.
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