In several speeches, Sen. Barack Obama has used an easy, if imprecise, formulation to express his despair over the high incarceration rate of young black men. "I don't want to wake up four years from now and discover that we still have more young black men in prison than in college," he said at a rally last year, repeating, more or less, a line used frequently by critics of the criminal justice system.
But it's not accurate. There are far more young black men in college (about 530,000, ages 18 to 24) than in prison (about 106,000 in the same age group).
Still, Mr. Obama's count expresses a larger truth. If you counted black men under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system, you'd find that their numbers are higher than those pursuing a college degree. And, on any given day, about one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 (more than 475,000) is locked up in city or county jails or state or federal prisons, according to the Sentencing Project.
Not all those black men behind bars are hardened criminals. Many have done something dumb - written a bad check, failed to pay child support, bought a $5 bag of crack. But they haven't robbed or maimed or murdered. Still, they've ended up with criminal records that are likely to haunt them for the rest of their lives, limiting their chances at decent employment.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama hasn't made the nation's soaring prison population - approximately 1.6 million American adults are behind bars - a major theme of his campaign. He probably believes he can't afford to. Democrats have long been burdened by the perception that they are "soft on crime," so a black Democrat would be even less likely than a white Democrat to linger on the subject of black men in prison.
Sen. John McCain is not going to make an issue of it, either. And that's too bad.
The harsh sentences imposed over the past few decades, especially for drug offenses, have contributed to the much-discussed decline of the black family, taking black men away from their children, stigmatizing them with criminal records and locking them up with hard-core lifers. It's no wonder many of them remain marginalized - indeed, commit other crimes - after they are released.
Certainly, many offenders belong behind bars, especially those who are violent. Research suggests that most violent crimes are committed by a small group of predators. And law-abiding black Americans are disproportionately the victims of those thugs.
But we don't keep streets safer with draconian policies that lock up petty offenders. While many Americans believe that the stark decline in crime during the past decade is a result of harsh sentencing laws, experts say that the evidence doesn't bear that out. About 25 percent of the decline in violent crime can be attributed to increased incarceration, according to the Sentencing Project.
Of all the misguided criminal justice policies, the failed "war on drugs" has been the most destructive. It has swept up legions of black men whose biggest crime was being poor and buying their drugs on ghetto street corners, making them easy targets of police officers who swoop down and make busts to boost their arrest numbers.
No one wants to see violent crime climb back to the levels of the 1970s and '80s, when many urban neighborhoods were under siege. The drop in crime has eased tensions between black and white Americans and fostered the revitalization of inner cities.
But not every dumb kid with dope in his car will become a career criminal. Most of them won't - unless we lock them up with career criminals for 10 years and give them an advanced degree in villainy.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.