Prison System in America

VII. Race and Imprisonment in the 21st Century

In the 50-plus years since the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that ordered desegregation of public education, no American institution has changed more than the criminal justice system, and in ways that have profound effects on the African American community. Mass imprisonment has produced record numbers of Americans in prison and jail (now approaching 2.5 million) and has had a disproportionate effect on African Americans. There are now about 10 times as many African Americans in prison/jail as on the day of the Brown decision (98,000 in 1954; nearly 1,000,000 in 2007).

Today, 1 out of every 21 black men is incarcerated on any given day. For black men in their twenties, the figure is 1 in 8. Given current trends, 1 of every 3 (32%) black males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] Web site). More than half of black men in their early 30s who are high school dropouts have a prison record. With regard to black women, 1 of every 18 black females born today can expect to go to prison—6 times the rate for white women. Moreover, black women born today are 5 times more likely to go to prison in their lifetimes than black women born 30 years ago.

Factors contributing to the dramatic increase in the number of African Americans in prison/jail are complex, and involve dynamics both within and outside the criminal justice system. Incarceration rates are about 8 times higher for blacks overall than for whites, and high school dropouts are more than twice as likely to end up in prison than are high school graduates. Consequently, much of the growth in imprisonment has been concentrated among minority young men with little education. By the late 1990s, two thirds of all prison inmates were black or Hispanic, and about half of all minority inmates had less than 12 years of schooling.

Imprisonment has become so pervasive among young black men that it is now viewed as a common stage in the life course by some researchers (Pettit & Western, 2004). Among all men born between 1965 and 1969, an estimated 3% of whites and 20% of blacks had served time in prison by their early thirties. Among black men born during this period, 30% of those without a college education and nearly 60% of high school dropouts went to prison by 1999. For black men in their mid-30s at the start of the 21st century, prison records were nearly twice as common as bachelor’s degrees, and imprisonment was more than twice as common as military service. Imprisonment has become a common life event for black men that sharply distinguishes their transition to adulthood from that of white men.

Black/white inequality is obscured by using employment and wage figures that fail to include inmates. From a life course perspective, the earnings of ex-convicts diverge from the earnings of non-convicts as men get older. By their late 20s, non-convicts have usually settled into a stable path of earnings growth, while ex-convicts follow an unstable trajectory of irregular/transitory employment and low earnings. Research notes that white offenders tend to age out of crime earlier than do black offenders, suggesting that employment and wage earning deficits experienced by black ex-convicts may endure for a longer period of time than for white ex-convicts.

Changes in the criminal justice system over the past 25 years have been wide-ranging, affecting policing, sentencing, prison construction, postrelease supervision, and a variety of other policy areas at the state and federal levels. The sheer magnitude of the commitment of public resources is comparable to that expended in the social welfare efforts of the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike antipoverty policy, however, the punitive trend in criminal justice policy serves to conceal and deepen economic inequality between blacks and whites. Whereas it has often been considered how welfare, employment, and education policy affects inequality, it is now known that criminal justice policy over the past 25 years has impacted racial economic inequality in a significant way, to the point where inequality can be seen as a product of the expansion of mass imprisonment.

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