Expert: Government Numbers Keep Us in the Dark About Criminal Justice System

By Charles Fain Lehman, Washington Free Beacon

There are millions of people in America today with a criminal record, yet government statistics shed almost no light on their lives and experiences, an expert demographer argued in a Congressional hearing Wednesday.

Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, testified before a hearing of Congress's Joint Economic Committee on "the economic impacts of the 2020 Census and business uses of federal data." He is the author of the monograph Men Without Work, in which he explores the steady shift of working-age men out of the labor force over the past half-century.

The California state prison system copes with overcrowding / Getty Images

The California state prison system copes with overcrowding / Getty Images

In this and other work, Eberstadt largely depends on federal survey data to paint an accurate and comprehensive picture of these men and their lives. However, in his view these data are woefully inadequate to explaining the rise of non-working men.

"Our failure to cope more expeditiously with this problem, I submit, is in part due to our failure to understand it—a failure, in turn, directly related to the inadequacy of our statistical services to illuminate this problem's important dimensions," Eberstadt said.

There is one population about whom, he said, our government statistical systems can say very little in particular: people who have, whether through arrest or incarceration, been involved with the criminal justice system.

By the most comprehensive estimate, there are about 2.3 million people currently detained in America's prisons, jails, and other detention facilities. The majority of these individuals have been tried and convicted (although usually through plea bargaining); roughly a quarter, however, are indefinitely detained in jails, awaiting trial and unable to afford bail.

What is more, because America's prisons grew steadily for more than three decades, millions of additional Americans have an arrest record or history of incarceration. 110 million Americans had an arrest record as of 2016, while one analysis estimated that roughly twenty million American adults (and 15 percent of adult black men) had been to prison. These individuals are substantially more at risk of unemployment and homelessness, realities which can eventually push them back into the criminal justice system.

As Eberstadt and others have noted, the rise of mass incarceration almost certainly explains some proportion of the decline in prime-age male labor force participation. Yet it is startlingly hard to say how much, for the reason that Eberstadt sought to highlight Wednesday: We simply do not have good, comprehensive data on America's former felons.

"What do we know about this huge contingent of people?" Eberstadt asked. "Almost nothing. Age, sex, ethnicity, living arrangement, family situation, income, educational profile, health status, and all the rest of the data the U.S. federal statistical system collects for our national population cannot be cross referenced by arrest status, at least thus far."

Data on the formerly incarcerated is just part of a much broader lack in America's criminal justice data system. Most collection of data on currently incarcerated individuals is overseen by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). While it is able to collect data about federal prisons, thanks to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the BJS often receives only limited information from states, meaning that national statistics on who is actually in prison are urgently lacking.

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