A majority of federal prison inmates and nearly half of all state prisoners are white or white Hispanic, not African American. More than four out of 10 prisoners were raised in two-parent families, and more than half had full-time jobs prior to their arrest.
That's not to say that broken homes, joblessness and a mediocre education aren't enormous risk factors. They are, and likely always will be.
But these new numbers suggest that solutions to the crime problem lie well beyond the simplistic, single-shot solutions ("three strikes and yer out!" comes immediately to mind) and give lie to some of the comfortable stereotypes that the average American has about the causes of crime.
Here are some of the myths and near-myths about crime-and the reality, as revealed by the Justice study:
* Lack of education leads to crime. Most state and federal prisoners aren't high school dropouts. Nearly six out of 10 state prison inmates - 59 percent - and more than three out of four federal prisoners - 77 percent - have at least a high school education. In fact, 28 percent of all federal prisoners and 12 percent of state prison inmates attended at least some college.
* Broken homes lead to crime. It's entirely true that children raised in single-parent households are disproportionately more likely to become involved in criminality than those who are not. But the survey revealed that 43 percent of state prison inmates and 58 percent of federal prisoners were raised by both parents.
* The Face of Crime is Black. It is true that blacks are disproportionately represented in the overall prison populations in both state and federal facilities, relative to their proportion in the population.
But the survey also suggests that fewer than half of all inmates in state prison are U.S.-born blacks. In fact, there are significantly more whites (38 percent) than blacks (30 percent) in federal prisons. In state penal facilities, 46 percent of the inmates are black, while 35 percent are white. Hispanics, who are mostly but not exclusively white, make up 28 percent of all federal prisoners and 17 percent of state inmates.
* Joblessness leads to crime. Again, no argument that unemployment is a considerable risk factor. But the Justice survey found that most prisoners were employed full-time prior to their arrest. According to the survey, 56 percent of those state prisoners interviewed and 65 percent of the federal inmates had full-time jobs before they were arrested. About one out of 10 state and federal prisoners were employed part-time; only one out of six state and federal prisoners were classified as "discouraged workers" - unemployed and not looking for work. (Still, the data suggest these jobs were something less than lucrative: More than half of all prisoners reported pre-arrest annual incomes of less than $15,000 a year; a quarter of all federal prisoners and one out of seven state inmates earned $25,000 or more.)
Some caveats are in order. First, this survey is of prison inmates, and by definition does not include persons convicted of a crime and given probation, or sentenced to do jail time. And differences in the kinds of crimes prosecuted by state and federal governments - and the differences between the kinds of people who commit certain kinds of crime (securities fraud versus liquor store stickups, for example) - produces many of the differences between the two prison populations.
Federal inmates tended, on average, to be older (36 years versus 30 years), better educated and generally more "white collar" than state prison inmates. Nearly half of all state prisoners were doing time for committing violent crimes, compared to 17 percent of all federal prisoners. Federal innmates were, however, twice as likely to be in for drug violations. And significantly, federal prisoners expected to serve more of their sentences than did state prisoners.
One out of four state prisoners but nearly four out of 10 state prison inmates said they had a relative who had been in prison.
A random sampling of 14,000 state prisoners and 6,600 federal inmates were interviewed in 1991 for the study, which was jointly sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
"This collaborative effort represented the single largest collection of information on prisoners ever undertaken in the United States," says Lawrence A. Greenfeld, acting director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.