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I sent the following e-mail to Daniel Okrent, the public editor (ombudsman) for the New York Times regarding the factual errors in today's column by Brent Staples. I'm hoping for a response in the next day or two.
Dear Mr. Okrent,
I must protest (politely!) the misleading column printed by the New York Times in today's edition by Mr. Brent Staples. In his haste to concoct a conspiracy among Republicans to count prisoners where they reside for the census, Mr. Staples either failed to research the data on which he based his conclusions or he deliberately misled his readers.
Mr. Staples states that we have a "felon class" of 13 million people. That would be news to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which puts the entire American prison population at all levels for all crimes (not just felonies) at just over 2 million at the end of 2003. Moreover, the rate of growth slowed in 2003 to 2.6%, down from the 3.5% rate over the past decade. Violent offenders, by the way, accounted for 63% of the increased incarceration, while drug-related crime -- which Staples claims is the main cause -- only accounted for 15%.
Now, I am aware that Mr. Staples may refer to the number of people in America who have been convicted of a felony at some time in their life, although I find no statistical support for the 13 million he asserts would fall into that category. However, since the point of his column seems to be that the housing of prisoners in rural or suburban areas skews the census, reapportionment, and federal aid, Mr. Staples clearly implies that 13 million felons are incarcerated at any one time -- an assertion that is off by more than a factor of six.
Even more absurd is Mr. Staples' use of New York as an example. In 2003, New York's prison population decreased by 2.8%, one of 11 states whose incarceration rate declined. Even without that information, New York's prison population (77,000 in 2000) won't even amount to a single Congressional or assembly representative even if they were all put into one facility. As your editorial board saw fit to write a nearly identical piece over five weeks ago, Mr. Staples' factual errors and lack of context appears to me to be part of a campaign by your paper to push Congress into rewriting census laws with little benefit. It's a non-issue that the Times insists on beating into the ground, just like their jeremiad against the Masters tournament a couple of years back.
I have plenty of other areas of disagreement with Mr. Staples, but those fall into differences in philosophy and opinion. However, I must express my disappointment that despite your new emphasis on fact-checking your opinion pages, your editorial board allowed these obvious errors to make it into print. I look forward to a prominent correction on the editorial page in the near future.
As always, I thank you for your attention and your efforts.
I'll post an update if I hear back from Mr. Okrent.Sphere It View blog reactions
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