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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 13th August 2013
1 in 25 Americans was NOT arrested in 2011.

1 in 25 Americans was NOT arrested in 2011.

That’s the point I want to make with this piece so I thought I’d make it immediately in case you don’t want to read why I felt the need to say that and why I think it matters.

On 7th August Huffington Post published an article by Radley Balko headlined ‘One In 25 Americans Was Arrested In 2011’.

Its second paragraph includes;

‘According to the FBI, in 2011 there were 3991.1 arrests for every 100,000 people living in America.’

That’s true and I know it is true because Balko gives a link to the FBI report and the third bullet point of the ‘Overview’ on that page says;

‘The estimated arrest rate for the United States in 2011 was 3,991.1 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants.’

So far, so good but Balko then writes;

‘That means over the course of a single year, one in 25 Americans was arrested.’

No, it doesn’t.

It means that, approximately, there was one arrest for every 25 people in America. I’ll use a hypothetical small town to explain the important difference. Notown has a population of exactly 1,000 people. All bar one is completely law-abiding but that one can’t resist stealing the money from the collection plate in church. He gets arrested for it nearly every time but, because the vicar won’t give evidence against him, he is released without going to court. This happens 40 times in one year.

That means that in Notown there was one arrest for every 25 members of the population but it does not mean that 1 in 25 of the population was arrested.

I’ve explained that in very simplistic terms because there are people who struggle to understand even the simplest arithmetic.

I’m not saying Radley Balko is one of those. I know he isn’t because at the end of the piece it says;

‘CLARIFICATION: A few folks have noted that the 1 in 25 figure could be misleading, given that many people are likely to have been arrested more than once. Fair enough. It's an average. The most accurate way to phrase it would be that in 2011, there were approximately four arrests for every 100 residents.’

First, it is not ‘an average’; it’s an incorrect number. Second, if ‘The most accurate way to phrase it would be that in 2011, there were approximately four arrests for every 100 residents’ why leave the headline unchanged? Is Huffington Post saying ‘We know this headline is a lie but, hey, it’s eye-catching so we don’t care?’

But Huffington Post is not the only outlet to misreport this story. Salon’s Natasha Lennard cites Radley Balko in her piece ‘In 2011, 1 in 25 Americans was arrested’ but doesn’t give the FBI figures so the reader has no chance to see for themselves that 3,991.1 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants is not 1 in 25 Americans arrested.

My interest in this story is that of the 12,408,899 arrests logged by the FBI, an estimated 1,531,251 were for ‘drug abuse violations’. That’s the highest single category except for ‘property crime’ at 1,639,883. As a result, of this high proportion, a number of drug law reform advocates, both individuals and groups, have Tweeted the ‘1 in 25’ figure.

And that gets us to the very core of my problem with this story and the way it has been reported and repeated. If you have ever seen ‘All the President’s Men’, the film about the Washington Post’s investigations into the crimes of Richard Nixon and his staff, you may recall that, at one point, Woodward and Bernstein make a mistake and the Nixon administration leaps on that in order to characterise all the reporting as flawed. In the movie, if not in real life, that incident is depicted as nearly allowing Nixon to get off the hook.

That was one of those things that stuck and formed a lasting impression. I get very cross whenever someone tries to criticise politicians using incorrect figures because, it seems to me, that gives the politician the opportunity to divert the discussion to the error and avoid dealing with the substantive issue.

If drug reformers use the untrue ‘1 in 25 Americans arrested’ to try and bolster calls for reform it allows the likes of Kevin Sabet to both question the merit of the reform argument in general as well as avoiding the necessary discussion about the levels of arrest for what should be, overwhelmingly, an innocent activity.

The level of arrests in the USA for drug related offences is obscene. So obscene that it does not need to be bolstered by the use of false statistics.

1 in 25 Americans was NOT arrested in 2011.

Please, remember that.

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