July 16, 2004

· Sociology

I’ve written about the intersection of incarceration, race and the labor market several times in the past. In the United States, the remarkable expansion of the prison system over the past thirty years, despite generally falling crime rates, has had far-reaching effects on large segments of the population, but especially amongst unskilled black men. A striking way to characterize the depth of this change is to make a comparison to rates of participation in some other institution—- say, for instance, that more black men have been to jail than are in college. But, as a lobby group found out last year, these comparisions are quite tricky to make properly, because the populations are different (all black men vs college-age black men, for instance).

But one of the many good reasons we have sociologists and demographers is to work out those numbers properly. A new paper [pdf] by Becky Pettit and Bruce Western[1] does a terrific job of estimating how the effects of mass incarceration are distributed across the population. They estimate the risk of imprisonment for black and white men of different levels of education.[2] The paper is worth reading in its entirety, both to see how the findings might be understood and to understand how one goes about estimating these numbers in the first place—it’s not at all trivial to calculate them. Two core findings—bearing in mind these are the best available estimates—are remarkable:

  • Among black men born between 1965 and 1969, 30.2 percent of those who didn’t attend college had gone to prison by 1999. A startling 58.9 percent of black high school dropouts born from 1965 through 1969 had served time in state or federal prison by their early 30s.

  • “Imprisonment now rivals or overshadows the frequency of military service and college graduation for recent cohorts of African American men. For black men in their mid-thirties at the end of the 1990s, prison records were nearly twice as common as bachelor’s degrees.” In the same cohort, “imprisonment was more than twice as common as military service.”

Interestingly, racial disparity as such has not grown in sentencing: the rates and risks of imprisonment are 6 to 8 times higher for young black men compared to young whites in both the ‘45-‘49 and ‘65-‘69 cohorts. But class inequality has increased. So while lifetime risk of imprisonment nearly doubled between 1979 and 1999, “nearly all of this increased risk was experienced by those with just a high school education.” Incarceration is now the typical life-event for young, poorly-educated black men.

fn1. Full disclosure: Becky’s a friend of mine and Bruce was one of my Ph.D advisers.

fn2. To forestall any misinterpretation, note that “risk” is a technical term here meaning roughly “the probability of being observed as ‘incarcerated’ during the period under study.”

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