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January 18, 2005
The New York Times Responds (Finally)

On December 27th, I posted about an op-ed column in the New York Times written by Brent Staples, decrying the Census Bureau practice of counting prisoners as residents of the county in which the prison is located. This column followed an editorial by the Gray Lady with the same assertions in a foreshadowing of what I expect to be blitz coverage of the 2010 census -- think Masters Gold Tournament.

Mr. Staples used some odd statistics in his opinion piece about the nature of disenfranchisement (emphasis mine):

The mandatory sentencing fad that swept the United States beginning in the 1970's has had dramatic consequences - most of them bad. The prison population was driven up tenfold, creating a large and growing felon class - now 13 million strong - that remains locked out of the mainstream and prone to recidivism. Trailing behind the legions of felons are children who grow up visiting their parents behind bars and thinking prison life is perfectly normal. Meanwhile, the cost of building and running prisons has pushed many states near bankruptcy - and forced them to choose between building jails and schools.

I wondered about that statistic, as it appeared overly large, especially since Mr. Staples' main argument involved the counting of felons for the census. I did my own research and found this:

Staples uses misleading or flat-out erroneous data to support his claims. He 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 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%.

Even more absurd is the Times' use of New York as an example. In 2003, New York's prison population decreased by 2.8%, one of 11 states whose incarceration 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. It's a non-issue that the Times insists on beating into the ground, just like their jeremiad against the Masters tournament.

I sent a letter to the reader representative, Daniel Okrent, protesting the shell game Brent Staples played with the statistics and challenged the New York Times to substantiate his column or retract it. In response, I received this message today from Gail Collins at the NYT:

The Public Editor has forwarded your letter to me. When Brent Staples wrote about the "felon class" he was referring to both ex-convicts and those currently serving time for felonies. I conveyed to him your question about where he got the number 13 million and he gave me several references, including an essay by Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in "Invisible Punishment 2002" and "Crime Class and Rehabilitation," an address delivered by Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota at the American Society of Criminology Conference in 2000.

That's the entire reply, except for the greeting and the signature. Instead of checking with official sources for his statistics, Mr. Staples apparently cherry-picked his numbers from an obscure speech at the ASCC from four years ago and an essay by a college president. Ms. Collins implies that Mr. Staples consulted other sources, but none named.

I stand by what I wrote. Mr. Staples compared apples and oranges in an attempt to create the impression that 13 million people were being incarcerated by the GOP in their districts to affect apportionment, when the numbers do not even approach that. Mr. Staples either made a large error in his calculations or deliberately misled his readers, and the New York Times owes them a retraction.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 18, 2005 12:45 PM

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