Mass Imprisonment And Economic Inequality Essay

Executive Summary

On the surface, crime and punishment appear to be unsophisticated matters. After all, if someone takes part in a crime, then shouldn’t he or she have to suffer the consequences? But dig deeper and it is clear that crime and punishment are multidimensional problems that stem from racial prejudice justified by age-old perceptions and beliefs about African Americans. The United States has a dual criminal justice system that has helped to maintain the economic and social hierarchy in America, based on the subjugation of blacks, within the United States. Public policy, criminal justice actors, society and the media, and criminal behavior have all played roles in creating what sociologist Loic Wacquant calls the hyperincarceration of black men. But there are solutions to rectify this problem.

To summarize the major arguments in this essay, the root cause of the hyperincarceration of blacks (and in particular black men) is society’s collective choice to become more punitive. These tough-on-crime laws, which applied to all Americans, could be maintained only because of the dual legal system developed from the legacy of racism in the United States. That is, race allowed for society to avoid the trade-off between societies “demand” to get tough on crime and its “demand” to retain civil liberties, through unequal enforcement of the law. In essence, tying crime to observable characteristics (such as race or religious affiliation) allowed the majority in society to pass tough-on-crime policies without having to bear the full burden of these policies, permitting these laws to be sustained over time.

What’s more, the history of racism, which is also linked to the history of perceptions of race and crime, has led society to choose to fight racial economic equality using the criminal justice system (i.e., incarceration) instead of choosing to reduce racial disparities through consistent investments in social programs (such as education, job training, and employment, which have greater public benefits), as King (1968) lobbied for before his assassination. In other words, society chose to use incarceration as a welfare program to deal with the poor, especially since the underprivileged are disproportionately people of color.

At the same time, many communities attempted to benefit economically from mass incarceration by using prisons as a strategy for economic growth, making the incarceration system eerily similar to the system of slavery. Given all of the documented social and economic costs of mass incarceration (e.g., inferior labor market opportunities, increases in the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS, destruction of the family unit), it can be concluded that it has helped to maintain the economic hierarchy, predicated on race, in the United States. In order to undo the damage that has been done, and in order to move beyond our racial past, we must as a nation reeducate ourselves about race; and then, as a society, commit to investing in social programs targeted toward at-risk youth. We must also ensure diversity in criminal justice professionals in order to achieve the economic equality that King fought for prior to his death. Although mass incarceration policies have recently received a great deal of attention (due to incarceration becoming prohibitively costly), failure to address the legacy of racism passed down by our forefathers and its ties to economic oppression will only result in the continued reinvention of Jim Crow.

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The powerful never lose opportunities – they remain available to them. The powerless on the other hand, never experience opportunity – it is always arriving at a later time.—Martin Luther King Jr. (King 1968/2010, 1612)


Hope and fear are two of the most effective tools of persuasion. Martin Luther King Jr. persuaded the hearts of a nation, and the world, with a message of hope. In fact, President Obama became the first black president of the United States, following in Dr. King’s footsteps, using hope as the cornerstone of his campaign. On the surface, Obama seemed to fulfill the roadmap for change that King provided 51 years ago in his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. After all, a black man was voted into the highest office in the nation (arguably the world) during a time when only 13 percent of the nation self-identified as black (U.S. Census Bureau 2013). Surely, the fact that a majority of the nation cast their vote for a black president, not once but twice, indicates that the United States has made significant progress with race relations.

While Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House does suggest that we have made significant progress since the abolition of slavery, the fight for equality is far from over. After all, there are always exceptions to every rule. King did not stop his fight once African Americans attained “equality” under the law because he understood that such equality was actually costless and that the real price that society would have to pay for reversing the mass oppression of a people would come in delivering economic parity:

The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required, for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites. (King 1968/2010, 197)

In fact, in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King (1968/2010) eloquently reasons that the real dilemma for American society is whether or not to ensure economic equality through equal pay and equal investments in human capital. Such equality would come at a much greater cost than simply allowing a group of marginalized individuals the right to vote because “… jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls” (p. 202). As King wrote, the then assistant director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Hyman Bookbinder, estimated the long-term costs of insuring true social equality to be roughly one trillion dollars (p. 205). Apparently, Bookbinder did not believe this to be a daunting task, asserting that “‘…the poor [could] stop being poor if the rich [were] willing to become even richer at a slower rate’” (p. 205).

Nonetheless, true acceptance and complete integration into the social fabric of society would only come through an overhaul of the American social structure. As he sought genuine social change, King began to encounter heightened resistance, even among white liberals who openly supported the civil rights movement, due to political backlash as fear of losing white privilege began to invade the momentum of the movement (King 1968/2010; Steinberg 1998). However, King intuitively understood that there could be no social justice without economic justice because the persistence of economic inequality (e.g., lower wages for equivalent jobs) meant the preservation of the social hierarchy that defined blacks as only partly human. While the distinction ceased to persist in the letter of the law, it continued to be true within the U.S. economic structure.

It is well documented that the U.S. first garnered recognition on the international science scene through polygeny, a theory, mostly of American descent, that postulated that different races originated from different ancestors, with whites holding a superior status to all other groups. This “science” perpetuated the long held beliefs in the United States that African Americans are a degenerate race of individuals that have an inferior intellect, that are prone to criminal behavior, and that are not equipped to govern themselves (Frederickson 1971; Steinberg 1998; A.Y. Davis 1998; Gould 1996; Wacquant 2000). In fact, these opinions are still held and are documented today in social psychology experiments that find that black criminals are typically seen as more immoral than whites who commit similar crimes (Graham and Lowery 2004).

King (1968/2010) advised that in order to progress towards true equality whites would have to put forth “…a mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance” (p. 243). Nonetheless, instead of addressing the structural barriers that kept black Americans from achieving true social justice in a laissez-fair economy, it could be argued that mainstream society used the problems in the black community, which were themselves attributable to systematic oppression, as proof of why blacks were “undeserving” of this public investment (King, 1968/2010; Steinberg 1998; A.Y. Davis 1998; Crenshaw 1998; Wacquant 2000). In fact, one reason the “Moynihan Report” became so prominent was because of its characterization of the African American community as socially pathological, even though in the report then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan attributes this “pathology” to years of oppression of the black community (U.S. Department of Labor 1965; Acs et al. 2013).

At the same time, the protest and riots of the 1960s linked the movement for equality to crime and racial violence. Growing racial tension allowed for tough on crime policies as major agenda items in election campaigns that would later pave the way for policies that led to the mass incarceration of mostly black men (Tonry 1995; Loury 2008; Western and Wildeman 2008; Raphael and Stoll 2013). Issues of race and class lie at the heart of the problem of mass incarceration, making it very complex. In fact, it can be argued that the disproportionate incarceration rate of minorities in general, and blacks in particular, is one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time (Alexander 2010; Loury 2008; Wacquant 2008; Wacquant 2000), and an issue whose consequences extend beyond the inmate to the destruction of families and communities.

On the surface, crime and punishment appear to be unsophisticated matters. After all, if someone takes part in a crime, then shouldn’t he or she have to suffer the consequences of such actions? Nonetheless, it is argued throughout this essay that crime and punishment are multidimensional problems that are inherently tied to institutionalized racial prejudice justified by age-old perceptions and beliefs about African Americans. It is purported that the criminal justice system has become a tool used to maintain the economic and social hierarchy within the United States based on the subjugation of blacks. In the remainder of this essay I will discuss the roles that public policy, criminal justice actors, society and the media, and criminal behavior have played in creating what sociologist Loic Wacquant calls the hyperincarceration of black men. I will then discuss possible solutions to rectify this problem.

How did we get here? The causes of mass incarceration

Although mass incarceration can be attributed to public policy, these policies were sustained over time because of institutionalized racism. The disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans that ensued resulted from the link between perceptions of race and crime, and the subconscious desire to maintain the American economic social structure, which places blacks at the bottom and whites at the top.

Public policy

Over the past 40 years U.S. incarceration has grown at an extraordinary rate. However, this has not always been the case. Figure A provides historical estimates of the imprisonment rate in state and federal facilities and it demonstrates that from 1925 until about the middle of the 1970s the rate did not rise above 140 persons imprisoned per 100,000 of the population. However, the extraordinary growth of the imprisonment rate after 1974 eventually led to unprecedented levels of incarceration. While the increase in incarceration could be driven by changes in policy and/or changes in criminal behavior, Raphael and Stoll (2013) find that the lion’s share of the growth in the prison population can be accounted for by society’s choice for tough-on-crime policies (e.g., determinate sentencing, truth-in-sentencing laws, limiting discretionary parole boards, etc.) resulting in more individuals (committing less serious offenses) being sentenced to serve time, and longer prison sentences. Stated differently, individuals are imprisoned for crimes that they would not have been incarcerated for in the past, and those who committed offenses that would have previously warranted confinement receive much longer prison terms. Lastly, a large fraction of society is on parole, and parolees are more likely to violate parole and return to prison than in the past (Raphael and Stoll 2013). Raphael and Stoll (2013) attribute no more than 9 percent of the increase in state incarceration since 1984 to changes in criminal behavior. They find little to no evidence for the most common factors posited for the extraordinary increase in the U.S. incarceration rate: 1) changes in the relative returns to legal activity (e.g., declining low-skill wages) relative to illegal activity (changes in drug markets in general, and crack cocaine in particular), 2) increases in criminal behavior (e.g., violent crime) due to the introduction of crack cocaine, and 3) the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill.

Figures B and C plot the lifetime likelihood of a first incarceration at a state or federal prison for individuals born between 1974 and 2001disaggregated by race and ethnicity for men and women respectively. The lifetime likelihood of a first incarceration has greatly increased over time and this is especially true for blacks and Hispanics. The rate of change for men is greatest between 1986 and 1991 while the rate of change for women is highest between 1986 and 1997.1 The years of the extreme increase in slope coincides with the Reagan administration’s enhancement of Nixon’s war on drugs2 through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. One significant piece of this legislation, which is held responsible for the disproportionate rates of incarceration among African Americans in federal prisons, is the mandatory minimums for drug offenses including the disparities in sentencing between cocaine and the cheaper crack cocaine (see Raphael and Stoll 2013). However, the version of this bill passed in 1988 also provided substantial monetary incentives for state and local police agencies to implement the war on drugs (which was not previously a priority) through the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program (Byrne Program).

A 1993 GAO report states: “Byrne program grants are the primary source of federal financial assistance for state and local drug law enforcement efforts” (GAO 1993, 2). This grant, along with civil forfeiture laws passed in 1984 allowing state and local police to share in drug-related assets, provided substantial resources to state and local law enforcement to focus on the drug war. Arguably these monetary incentives, coupled with Supreme Court rulings empowering police with unprecedented discretion to stop and search citizens with little to no probable cause, have played a role in the excessive incarceration rates we see today and the disproportionate imprisonment of African Americans (Alexander 2010; Sandy 2002; Benson and Rasmussen 1996; Blumenson and Nilsen 1998; Tieger 1971; and Russell 1998).

Although arrest rates and incarceration rates are often used to gauge criminal activity, they are not pure measures of such behavior because they also reflect policy decisions as well as biases due to selective law enforcement. Figure D shows arrest rates in 1980 and 2009 for whites, Figure E provides the same data for blacks, and Figure F provides the percentage change in arrests over this period for blacks and whites for each crime category displayed. Figures D and E show that African Americans have much higher arrest rates than whites in every category. Figure F illustrates that except for whites arrested for aggravated assault, all other Index Part I crimes (homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft) decreased for both blacks and whites. The only other crimes to experience significant increases in arrest from 1980 to 2009 are the less serious offenses of simple assault, drug possession, and drug sales.

Figure G shows how the shift in focus to less serious crimes translated into changes in the distribution of offenses for individuals incarcerated in state prison from 1979 to 2009. It is clear from the figure that there was a decrease in the share of individuals sentenced to state facilities for violent crimes and property crimes, but large increases in imprisonment for less serious crimes such as drug crimes and other crimes, echoing the findings by Raphael and Stoll (2013) that a sizeable portion of the increase in incarceration was due to a focus on less serious offenses such as nonviolent drug offenses.3

Although policing decisions are typically made at the state and local levels, the federal government can still influence local law enforcement choices through laws and intergovernmental grant programs. These concessions (discussed above) were offered to state and local law authorities in order to garner support for the war on drugs. Such allowances (e.g., civil forfeiture laws and Edward Byrne Memorial grants) are dangerous for two reasons: 1) as demonstrated above, these programs distort policy and monitoring decisions, and 2) these laws produce “…self-financing, unaccountable law enforcement agencies divorced from any meaningful legislative oversight” (Blumenson and Nilsen, 1998). Within a public choice framework, more police resources do not necessarily lead to lower crime rates. On the contrary, such allowances may provide police with motives to keep crime/arrest rates high since arrest rates are a measure of their efficacy and demand, and are now tied to federal funding. Thus, the availability of these targeted resources could explain police agencies switching focus to drugs (as well as other Part II crimes, such as simple assault) along with the increasing criminalization of less-serious offenses leading to prisons becoming filled with low-level drug offenders (Andreozzi 2004; Benson and Rasmussen 1996: Benson, Kim, and Rasmussen 1994).

At the same time, impoverished rural communities began seeking to use prison construction as part of their economic development strategies. Political officials hoped prisons would be a recession-proof industry that would help to stimulate their economies through job creation and regional multiplier effects (Farrigan and Glasmeier 2007; Kirchhoff 2010). Among 1,500 prison facilities constructed by 1995, Farrigan and Glasmeier (2007) find that 39 percent were located in rural communities, with the rural facilities holding higher percentages of males and blacks than urban prisons. In addition, the private sector also began to view the expanding prison population as a source of economic opportunity (Cheung 2002).

Putting the pieces of the puzzle together leads to the following system of mass incarceration: more punitive crime policies and a national push for the drug war (for political gain), which led state and local law enforcement to shift their focus to policing and punishing less serious lawbreakers such as drug offenders and those committing simple assault,4 which in turn spurred a boom in the prison population causing state and local officials to lobby for prison construction as a tool for economic growth and leading private industry to seek opportunities for profit among the incarcerated. The end result is political and economic systems reliant on communities in chaos (also see a discussion of this by Loury 2008). While the preceding thoughts may shed light on the growth in the incarcerated population, they do not explain how African Americans, who make up less than 13 percent of the population, came to account for over half of the prison population during the height of the prison boom.

Perceptions of race, criminality, and social stratification

Black children born in 2001 are roughly 5.5 times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated (Bonczar 2003). However, taken from a historical perspective this disparity is not unusual. By analyzing the ratio of the proportion of prison admissions rates to the proportion of the population by race (see Figure H) from 1926 to 1993, it is clear that blacks have historically experienced incarceration rates above their proportion in society. Nonetheless, it is also apparent that the disparity has become exacerbated over time. From a political economy perspective, it could be argued that the prison system has been used as a tool to usurp black (and poor white) labor, as a form of social control during economic downturns, and as a method to maintain social order when poor marginalized groups (e.g., black men) with high rates of unemployment increase in size (Myers 1993; Wacquant 2000).

When the political and economic threat of these groups is low, society becomes less punitive. It can be reasoned that the political gains by African Americans during the civil rights movement, followed by the urban flight of manufacturing jobs and an increase in the unemployed, led to society’s desire to use the penal system to control black labor. Along the same lines, the penal system could also be viewed as a form of welfare for young, poor minority men. In fact, it can be argued that the criminal justice system in general, and prisons in particular, have become the primary method used to maintain the U.S. social structure predicated on the hegemony of whites, with blacks viewed by many as an underserving deviant group (Loury 2008). It could also be reasoned that after the civil rights movement made it socially and legally unacceptable to deny individual rights based on race, incarceration became the ideal tool to restore control and uphold this social order (Alexander 2010). In fact, empirical research has found that imprisonment is used to regulate excess black unemployment (Myers and Sabol 1987).

More recent research finds that there are strong effects of incarceration on employment and earnings (e.g., see Raphael and Stoll 2013, Pager 2003; Pager, Western, and Suggie 2009; Raphael 2014; and Pager, Western, and Bonikowski 2009), the burden of which is disproportionately felt in the black community, since African Americans are excessively incarcerated. Incarceration diminishes employment and earnings prospects, especially for young black men (Holzer 2009; Pager, Western, and Suggie 2009; Pager, 2003; Pager, Western, and Bonikowski 2009). Due to large numbers of black men incarcerated, it has also been found that black-white employment and earnings disparities have been underestimated (Western and Pettit 2000; Chandra, 2003). In particular, there is evidence that arrests may explain almost two-thirds of the black-white gap in employment for young men (Grogger 1992) and that incarceration explained one-third of this differential in 2000 (Raphael 2006). Moreover, new research suggests that the higher relative arrest rates of blacks compared to whites might limit black upward mobility, and lead to inferior occupational placements (e.g., preclude blacks from consideration for managerial positions, in which being absent—due to an arrest—is more costly to employers (Bailey 2014).5

After accounting for selection bias, Chandra (2003) estimates that black-white wage differentials actually diverged between 1980 and 1990, and that incarceration can account for almost 50 percent of this divergence. Western and Pettit (2005) also find that from 1980 to 1999, the black-white wage differential increased among working-age men after accounting for incarceration-induced selection bias.

Moreover, using audit studies, Pager (2003) and Pager, Western, and Bonikowski (2009), find that employment opportunities for minorities are hurt more by an incarceration. However, incarceration does not affect everyone in the same way: Low-skilled white males recently released from prison receive just as many, if not more call backs than blacks and Hispanics without a criminal record (Pager, Western, and Bonikowski 2009). It is interesting to note that, although low-skilled white male employment is hurt by an incarceration, previously incarcerated white men are still ranked in the economic hierarchy at the same level as low-skilled Hispanic and black men without criminal records.

To further illustrate this point, Figure I (derived from estimates from Pettit and Western 2004) provides an estimate of the cumulative risk of imprisonment by age 30–34 for two different birth cohorts by race and education level. Regardless of race or birth cohort, education is associated with a significant decrease in the likelihood of incarceration. However, racial disparities in incarceration persist over time at all education levels.

Finally, imprisonment leads to the loss of an individual’s ability to participate in the democratic process, and ultimately one’s citizenship, through felon disenfranchisement laws (Uggen, Manza, and Thompson 2006; Karlan 2008). The majority of states prohibit individuals in prison or on probation or parole from voting, and although numerous states have developed protocols for restoring voting privileges to ex-offenders, these procedures are so onerous that many do not seek to restore their rights (The Sentencing Project 2013).

Taking all of the above into consideration, there is ample evidence that the criminal justice system has played an integral part in maintaining social and economic stratification along racial lines (Western and Wildeman 2008; Alexander 2010; Wacquant 2008;Wacquant 2000; Myers 1993).

In conclusion, the civil rights movement threatened the political power of white privilege and, coupled with the flight of urban jobs (not necessarily two independent events), created a reserve of young, idle, unemployed black youth, which paved the way for more punitive (versus rehabilitative) policies toward crime. With the help of politicians and the news media, criminal and black has become so interchangeable that social psychology experiments testing implicit racial bias have generally found whites view blacks as less trustworthy, more violent, and innately criminal (Sommers and Ellsworth 2000; Dixon and Maddox 2005; Eberhardt et al. 2004; Payne, Shimizu, and Jacoby 2005; Correll et al. 2007). Other research suggests that white decisions on crime-fighting policies are influenced by racial stereotypes leading to the willingness to endorse more punitive approaches (i.e., building new prisons) versus investing in antipoverty methods when asked about fighting crime in the “inner city” (i.e., black community). This implies a greater willingness of society to use prison as the method for dealing with disadvantaged communities of color (Hurwitz and Peffley 2005).

The criminal justice system

Thus far, the root causes of the expansion of the prison population (public policy), the motive behind this growth (preservation of social hierarchy), and the tool used to achieve these goals (criminal justice system and prisons) have been identified. It is important to note that the suggested motive behind mass incarceration need not be intentional animus. Rather, it is proposed that racism is so ingrained in American society that it can operate similar to the invisible hand concept developed by Adam Smith to explain market equilibrium.6 However, there still remains the question: How did crime control policies that affected the entire public turn into a system for locking up a disproportionate share of African Americans?

The answer lies in the use of discriminatory enforcement (Loury 2008). Given the research discussed above, it is logical to infer that society is more tolerant of selective law enforcement in black neighborhoods. There are two criminal justice actors that play very important roles in discriminatory enforcement at the first point of contact with this system: 1) policing agencies, and 2) prosecutors. Police have vast discretion over whom they regulate and which violations, if any, they decide to charge. Legal scholars have written about the extraordinary, unchecked, discretion allotted to police officers and the effects this has on the application of the law (Tieger 1971; Cole 2001; Alexander 2010). One highly publicized “method” to carry out selective enforcement is racial profiling. It is often argued that policing based on race has merit if it is the result of statistical discrimination (i.e., race used as a signal to identify individuals that are more likely to commit a crime), which is thought to enhance policing efficiency. Therefore, much of the empirical literature attempts to identify whether racial profiling is statistically driven or whether it is preference-based discrimination. While empirical results vary based on the methods and data used,7 there are a number of empirical studies that suggest there is greater enforcement of criminal laws in communities of color. For example, some studies find that the race of the police officer matters in determining who will be monitored, which suggests preference-based profiling since statistical discrimination would imply that the officer’s race is inconsequential to enforcement decisions (Antonovics and Knight 2009; Close and Mason 2006; Close and Mason 2007; Donohue and Levitt 2001).8

Evidence of racial profiling can also be seen by comparing drug use with drug arrest rates by race. In Figure J, black senior high school9 students indicate using cocaine and marijuana at lower rates in 1980, 1993, and 2009 than their white counterparts; however, Figure K shows that, in general, blacks are much more likely than whites to be arrested for possession and distribution of drugs. In fact, from 1980 to 2009 arrest rates for drug possession increased the most for blacks, with roughly a 205 percent change. Figure L suggests that this racially biased policing also led to a change in the distribution of offenses for which blacks were sentenced to state prisons from 1986–1999. The figure shows the percentage change in the proportion of total offenses committed by blacks and whites serving time in state prisons, by offense type. So, for example, the proportion of total murder offenses committed by blacks serving time in state facilities decreased by 7 percent, while whites’ share increased by 24 percent. Blacks saw the greatest change with drug offenses, their share increased by 50 percent. Since arrest rates reflect policy decisions, racial bias, and criminal behavior, they are more appropriately viewed as an indicator of the probability of enforcement versus criminal behavior. It is clear from figures K and L that blacks face a higher level of enforcement and punishment than whites. As mentioned earlier, it is possible that higher arrest rates reflect higher criminality among African Americans (thus requiring greater deterrence), but this does not seem to be the case when it comes to drugs (also see the 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report on this topic).

An anecdotal example10

Figure A

Rate of imprisonment in state or federal correctional facilities, 1925–2011

YearImprisonment rate
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Source: Author's calculation of Minor-Harper (1986) and Carson and Mulako-Wangota (2013)

Figure B

Male lifetime likelihood of going to state or federal prison, by race and ethnicity, 1974–2001


Black maleWhite maleHispanic maleAll male 
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Notes: The black and white categories exclude persons of Hispanic origin. Percents represent the chances of being admitted to state or federal prison during a lifetime. Estimates were obtained by applying age-specific first incarceration and mortality rates for each group to a hypothetical population of 100,000 births.  See methodology section in Bonczar (2003).

Figure C

Female lifetime likelihood of going to state or federal prison, by race and ethnicity, 1974–2001

Black femaleWhite femaleHispanic femaleAll women 
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Notes: The black and white categories exclude persons of Hispanic origin. Percents represent the chances of being admitted to state or federal prison during a lifetime. Estimates were obtained by applying age-specific first incarceration and mortality rates for each group to a hypothetical population of 100,000 births.  See methodology section in Bonczar (2003).

Figure D

White arrest rates by offense type, 1980 and 2009

Aggravated assault89.6108.8
Simple assault168.6350.2
Motor vehicle theft48.620.3
Drug sale43.772.5
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Source: Author's calculation from Snyder (2011) for 1980 data and FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program data (U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation 2009) for 2009

Figure E

Black arrest rates by offense type, 1980 and 2009

Aggravated assault366.6344.8
Simple assault569.61023.8
Motor vehicle theft151.871.7
Drug sale163.9311.6
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Source: Author's calculation from Snyder (2011) for 1980 data and FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program data (U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation 2009) for 2009

Figure F

Percentage change in arrests, by race, 1980–2009

Aggravated  assault21-6
Motor vehicle theft-58-53
Simple assault10880
Drug possession102205
Drug sales6690
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Source: Author's calculation from Snyder (2011) for 1980 data and FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program data (U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation 2009) for 2009

Figure G

Percentage change in the distribution of state prison offenses, 1979–2009

 CategoryPercentage change
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Source: Author's calculations from Guerino et al. (2011) and U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (1982)

Figure H

Ratio of proportion admitted to prison to share of population, by race, 1926–1993

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Source: Author's calculations from Gibson and Jung (2002), National Prisoners Statistics (U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics), and Brown et al. (1996)

Figure I

Cumulative risk of imprisonment by ages 30–34, by education, race, and birth cohort

White (1945–1949)White (1965–1969)Black (1945–1949)Black (1965–1969)
Less than high school4%
High school/GED13.66.518.4
Some college0.
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Source: Author's calculation of Pettit and Western (2004)

Figure J

Drug use of high school seniors by race, 1980, 1993, 2009

White (cocaine)5.4%1.21.2
Black (cocaine)
White (marijuana)34.216.721.2
Black (marijuana)26.510.820.6
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Source: Author's calculation of National Center forHealth Statistics (2013)

Figure K

Drug arrests by race, 1980, 1993, and 2009

White (possession)182.1236.9367.3
Black (possession)3418431039.6
White (sale)43.775.272.5
Black (sale)163.9507.8311.6
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Source: Author's calculation from Snyder (2011)

Figure L

Percentage change in the proportion of offenses committed by blacks and whites serving time in state prison, by offense type, 1986–1999

   Other sexual assault7-20
   Motor vehicle theft1-34
   Drug offenses48-62
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Source: Author's calculation from Beck and Harrison (2001) and U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (1989)

Over the past 40 years, the observed earnings gap between African American men and their white counterparts closed slowly but steadily. The average black employed worker earned about a quarter less than the average white employed worker with similar experience in 2010 compared to about a third less in 1970. Such enduring earnings inequality is nothing to celebrate, but at least the trend line is encouraging.

Or is it?

Those reported earnings gains among black men fail to take account of different trends in incarceration and employment, which not only skews labor market statistics but also masks the debilitating economic consequences of the mass incarceration of African American men over the past several decades. When properly accounted, there is little reason to believe that the labor market prospects for black men relative to white men have improved over the past 40 years.

Let’s start with the “prison boom,” or more precisely, the trend in incarceration rates, which have more than doubled over the past 30 years. Today, more than 2.3 million people are locked up in local jails, state prisons, or federal prisons. Although this prison boom affected all racial and ethnic groups, it has had a disproportionate effect on African American men. In the 2010 Census, almost one in ten African American men ages 20 to 34 were institutionalized, while the corresponding rate for white men was only about one in fifty.

Further, on any given day in 2010, about one third of African American men who were high school drop-outs between the ages 20 and 34 lived in jails, prisons, mental health institutions, or nursing homes, and there is good reason to believe that the fraction in prison or jail exceeded the employment rate for this group. Of course, this is just at any given point in time. The fraction incarcerated at some point in life is even higher—about two-thirds by age 34, according to a recent book by sociologist Becky Pettit from the University of Washington.

While these statistics are not new to criminologists, they imply that a growing share of the U.S. population is missing from the government’s main source of information about the labor market: the Current Population Survey. The CPS only covers the non-institutionalized population, but the federal government uses it to calculate important measures of labor market outcomes such as wages, labor force participation, and unemployment rates as well as official poverty statistics, including the Census Bureau’s new Supplemental Poverty Measure.

As the missing data problem has become more severe, these measures have become more distorted, in particular with respect to trends in racial inequality. In a recent NBER working paper, economist Derek Neal and I argue that since 1970, the economic progress of African American men relative to white men has been quite anemic. We reach this conclusion by properly accounting for the growth of the prison population over this period, and hence the misleading picture derived from average labor market earnings for employed workers.

In our paper, we treat the median weekly wages of men in their prime working years as a proxy for their overall labor market prospects. Among the employed, the ratio of median weekly wages for African Americans relative to whites increased steadily from around 65 percent in 1970 to well over 75 percent in 2010, the most recent census year. Yet this statistic substantially overstates the recent relative progress of African Americans for two reasons. First, employment rates for working age men have declined much more among blacks than among whites, and growing numbers among the non-employed are incarcerated. Second, earnings prospects are now and have always been worse for those who are not currently employed.

Thus, we estimate what we call median potential wages for blacks and whites, making adjustments for changes in the numbers of non-employed and institutionalized persons over time. We find that the labor market prospects of black men relative to white men have not improved over the past 40 years. There have been slight ups and downs (with some noteworthy progress in the 1990s), but in 2010, the ratios of median potential wages among African American men to the median potential wages of their white peers were roughly at 1970 levels, across groups with different levels of experience.

Black-white economic convergence, then, has come to a halt after substantial progress throughout most of the past century, as documented in a seminal 1989 study by James Smith of the Rand Corporation and Finis Welch, then an economics professor at the University of California-Los Angeles. While it is difficult to quantify the exact contribution of mass incarceration to the lack of black relative progress in recent decades, some studies do find suggestive evidence that incarceration harms employment and earnings opportunities long after prisoners serve their time.

Our results concerning stalled relative progress for African American men are particularly noteworthy because we are also able to demonstrate that the prison boom was primarily the result of policy choices. At first glance, one might suspect that rising incarceration rates reflect increased criminal activity as a consequence of deteriorating legal labor market opportunities for people with little formal education. But the boom in crime is long over. Criminal activity and arrests for all non-drug-related offenses peaked in the early to mid-1990s and have been on the decline ever since. Drug-related arrests increased well into the late 2000s, but due to short average sentences, drug offenses on their own contributed relatively little to the overall boom in incarceration.

Instead, the main driver of the prison boom has been a move toward more punitive corrections policies across all offense categories, not just drug crimes. Such policies include so-called Truth-in-Sentencing laws, “Three Strikes” policies, and mandatory minimum sentences. As a result, arrested alleged offenders in each violent crime category are now at least twice as likely to spend more than five years in prison then they were in the mid-1980s. The pattern is perhaps even more striking for non-violent offenses: conditional on arrest, the probability of any given sentence length has increased—often by a factor of two or more.

Overall, an alleged offender in the 2000s can expect to spend about twice as long in prison as in the 1980s, conditional on the severity of the crime. Of course, not all of this shift necessarily reflects a change in policy. In particular, technological advances such as the use of DNA evidence may have increased the probability that an alleged offender is found guilty. But these new investigative methods have been adopted by other developed countries—and none of them have experienced changes in distributions of time-served among offenders that are even remotely similar to those we have seen in the United States. Therefore, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that sentencing and parole release policies have played the leading role. We estimate that the overall shift toward more punitive corrections policies probably accounts for between 70 and 85 percent of the growth in incarceration rates since 1985.

There is now substantial evidence that the boom in incarceration had an adverse effect on the relative economic progress of African American men, and that this prison boom was primarily a policy choice and not a result of deteriorating labor market conditions. Supporters of tougher corrections policies may argue that these policies have contributed to the decline in criminal activity over the past two decades. But even with our study, the costs of that crime reduction have not been fully counted and may not have been fully realized yet.

Some recent studies provide evidence that more punitive treatment of first offenders increases recidivism rates and prolongs criminal careers, and recent trends in the demographic characteristics of prisoners are consistent with this claim. Crime in our country was once almost exclusively a young man’s game, but arrest rates and prison admission rates for men ages 40 to 49 have risen disproportionately in recent years. In addition, we have not yet seen how policies that promote mass incarceration within particular communities will impact future generations from those communities.

—Armin Rick is Assistant Professor of Economics at Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management. His collaborator on this project is Professor Derek Neal of the University of Chicago Economics Department. Their paper, “The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress after Smith and Welch,” was recently released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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