It hasn’t always been this way. From the 1920s to the early 1970s, the average incarceration rate in America was around 100 per 100,000. In 1925, the rate was 119. We hit 200 only one year (1939). In 1974, it was 153. By the mid-1970s America changed course, with a vengeance. By 2006, our rate was 750 per 100,000—an increase of almost 500 percent in 30 years. In 2008, when inmates in local jails were added to the count, we reached an astonishing 1 in 100 adults behind bars.
Even those numbers tell only part of the story. They report how many adults per 100,000 are in prison at any point in time. But consider what those incarceration rates mean over a lifetime. For a Latino man born between 1945 and 1949, his lifetime chance of incarceration is 2.8 percent. For the next generation born between 1975 and 1979, the lifetime risk of incarceration is 12.2 percent, a 430 percent increase. For African American males, the older man born between 1945 and 1949 has a lifetime chance of incarceration of 10.4 percent, but the next generation’s lifetime chance is 26.8 percent. Put another way, for all African American men born between 1975 and 1979, their lifetime chance of spending at least a year in prison is 1 in 4. At current rates, African American men have been projected to face a lifetime chance of imprisonment of 1 in 3. An African American man born between 1975 and 1979 who dropped out of high school has a lifetime chance of incarceration of a whopping 68 percent. For a provocative look at mass incarceration and race, you may want to read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
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