i knew it was bad, but…

I didn’t realize how bad. I know that others here (and readers) know far more about this than I do. But really? 1 in 100 U.S. adults are behind bars? I have recently been feeling that we’re moving to a moment of Marx’s revenge. It may not be proletariat and bourgeoisie, but I feel like we’re stretching out into two groups. I did a little thought experiment. How many people do I know who are in jail? None. And I’m not talking about friends here. I’m also thinking about my extended networks. I don’t know anyone. Given that 1 in 9 black men between 20 and 34 are in jail, the answer for other Americans is, a lot.

I looked at the map of prisoner increases by state (see after the break). But my prediction was wrong. Where would you guess the increase is?

Growth in Incarceration

I would have said, “California, Texas, New York and maybe some other states with major cities”. I was wrong. Granted with state-level data I can’t see if it’s happening in cities. But with Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Dakota, and a bunch of Southern states leading the way, I am thinking that this isn’t really a big cities phenomena. I’m not that surprised by the South, as there’s been considerable migration of Blacks back to the south (I think it was some half a million people in the 2000 census), and they are the most commonly incarcerated population.

But really, I’m just surprised. It’s very sobering.

ADDED: Just chatted with my colleague Carla Shedd about this. She guessed right about where the increases would be. Her explanation was that the high areas were states where there were “racial threats” that are comparatively new (because of migration) or aggravated by job loss/threat.

14 thoughts on “i knew it was bad, but…”

  1. are these data for state or federal prisons? and are prisoners counted as increases for the state they were residents of before their incarceration, or for the state they are incarcerated in? i’m thinking of how residency can become skewed when prisons become big business in rural areas, mostly.


  2. Before I go too far on “racial threat” I’d look at the race-specific rates. When you are looking at percentage increase/decrease numbers (rather than comparative rates) you are mostly looking at changes in policies. The way to change the imprisonment rate the fastest is to alter your probation/parole policies. The easiest way to post a fast decline in imprisonment is to parole a lot of people. High increases in imprisonment can be most readily generated by tightening up parole (letting fewer people out), increasing revocations, or spiking prison sentences, which is most easily done with “tough on crime” policies, especially around the drug war.


  3. I also wondered how much the increasing incarceration can be tied to demographic shifts in the population (particularly of men aged 18-35). As for the “racial threat”: a point very well taken. And keep in mind mine was a quick conversation with Shedd, so I may not have done her point justice. In fact, Kentucky’s increase is explained by Pew relative to a factor that you mention, OW: a decrease in the granting of parole. Upon a very brief inspection, the full report is interesting but leaves a lot to be explained (and I wonder about the explanations). Still, every time I hear prison rates I am incredibly surprised. You’d think I’d know by now not to be.


  4. Here’s some comparative context. Bruce Western and Becky Pettit’s papers on this stuff are very good: Pettit & Western’s (2004) ASR paper found the frankly astonishing result that in the cohort born between 1965 and 1969, thirty percent of black men without a college education—and sixty percent of black men without a high school degree—had been incarcerated by 1999. Recent cohorts of black men were more likely to have prison records (22.4 percent) than military records (17.4 percent) or bachelor’s degrees (12.5 percent).


  5. I’d be curious to know how the growing Hispanic/Latino population in the South and Southwest (outside of Texas and California) in this period played a role. I know the Bean (at UCI) has published some papers on immigration and incarceration, and in particular the not so high criminality of recent immigrants, but I don’t know the literature nearly well enough to say whether and how that story fits into the one in the map.


  6. Hispanic/Latino incarceration rates are much lower than Black in all but two states, and in many states are not all that different from White. But there is a lot of “error” in Hispanic rates because Hispanics are counted as White in arrest statistics and often as White in other statistics.


  7. My point about a demographic shift was simply that if we have a large cohort of people between the ages of 18 and 35 the crime rate would go up because folks in this age range are more likely to commit crimes.


  8. @12 This presupposes that the crime rate is a major factor in imprisonment rates. That presupposition would not be accurate. It also turns out that the size of the age cohort most “at risk” of imprisonment does not seem to be a predictor either. In the 1990s, imprisonment went up while the size of the cohort at risk went down.


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