did bill clinton cause mass incarceration of black people?

Short answer: Bill Clinton’s policies contributed to maintaining and increasing mass incarceration, but they affected Whites more than Blacks. Edit to short answer: Over in my full post on my own blog, I added graphs of the federal system, where Black imprisonment did go up under Clinton more than White imprisonment did. Federal system is smaller than state systems, so the overall patterns are dominated by state systems. The full post also gives graphs for other races.

Graph state imprisonment by race
National rate of being in state prisons, by race, 1978-2007.

The vertical line at 1995 represents the first year Clinton’s crime bill could take effect. Black state imprisonment leveled off during the Clinton years while White imprisonment continued to rise steeply. The Black/White disparity declined in the Clinton years. The steep rise in the Black imprisonment rate occurred during the Reagan/Bush years and the drug war, which was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before Clinton took office.

Graph of Black/White disparity in state imprisonment
Black/White disparity in rate of being in state prisons 1978-2007


More details and data sources over at my academic blog Race, Politics, Justice.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

10 thoughts on “did bill clinton cause mass incarceration of black people?”

  1. Super relevant question and really refreshing to see you keep up momentum on social science data blogging. It’s fallen off some in the last couple years while wonk blogs at journalistic outlets have picked up. Would be great to see appointed social scientists keep contributing to these public numbers conversations.


  2. This is a good question. I am a fan of Bill Clinton so I will not say he caused it. I will say that the war on drugs played a large role in the incarceration of many minorities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. The war on drugs started before Clinton and was more racially targeted on Blacks & Hispanics before Clinton, so far as I can tell in the data. Clinton continued the “war” but his signal legislation focused on violent crime and three strikes and subsidies for building more prisons.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know there has been a recent move to make prisons private owned. Its so easy to create practices that make the rich richer and the middle are none the wiser. Private prisons create an incentive for the government to lock people up. Some time ago I watched a documentary on black men in prison. A young black gentlemen was in prison for 20 years for selling crack cocaine. He pointed out that he was incarcerated alone and beside murders, rapists, and other violent offenders. He said he believed he should be punished for breaking the law but no think he deserved to be treated the same as murders, and I agree.


  3. David Harding and I have a forthcoming paper that argues that much of the racial disparity in incarceration rates predates the 1980’s and even 1970’s. Specifically we argue that the massive increase incarceration rates overall that begins in the 1970s appears to be a different phenomena than the current large racial disparities in incarceration which begin earlier. A copy of the paper can be found at: http://scholar.harvard.edu/cwinship/publications/population-growth-migration-and-changes-racial-differential-imprisonment.

    Chris Winship


  4. Thanks for the link. I’ll have to study the paper more carefully after ASA. My own unpublished analysis of the Langan data on prison admissions 1926-1986 agrees that the racial disparity in incarceration rose prior to the 1960s and in my detailed analysis of the 1970s data by state I could not find a single state in which the racial disparity of incarceration rose consistently across the 1970s, so my analysis supports your claim that the rise in disparity prior to the 1970s is a different phenomenon in its initiation than the global rise in incarceration that began in the 1970s. I do however find a very steep increase in the disparity that occurred during the drug war of the late 1980s-early 1990s; after that period, the disparity came back down to the prior level. Also, it is not only true that drug offenses accounted for the rise in disparity in that period, the overall racial disparity in sentencing was declining between the early 1980s and the late 1990s in all other crime categories.


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