UW Today

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May 20, 2004

Imprisonment a more common ‘life event’ than college or military service, study shows

Being jailed in federal or state prisons has become so common today that more young black men in the United States have done time than have served in the military or earned a college degree, according to new study.


The paper, appearing this week in the journal American Sociological Review, estimates that 20 percent of all black men born from 1965 through 1969 had served time in prison by the time they reached their early 30s. By comparison, less than 3 percent of white males born in the same time period had been in prison.


Equally startling, the risks of prison incarceration rose steeply with lower levels of education. Among blacks, 30.2 percent of those who didn’t attend college had gone to prison by 1999 and 58.9 percent of black high school dropouts born from 1965 through 1969 had served time in state or federal prison by their early 30s.


“More strikingly than patterns of military enlistment, marriage or college graduation, prison time differentiates the young adulthood of black men from the life course of white males. Imprisonment is now a common life event for an entire demographic group,” said Becky Pettit, one of the study’s authors and a UW assistant professor of sociology. Bruce Western, a Princeton University professor of sociology, is the co-author.


The study looks at men born from 1945 through 1969 focusing on two groups — those born from 1945 through 1949 and those born from 1965 through 1969.


It draws on publicly available data on inmates in federal and state prisons from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, but does not include information on spending time in local jails, which hold an estimated one-third of the incarcerated prison population. Hispanics were not included because data were not available, particularly about men born in the 1940s.


The incarceration rate for black men born in 1945–49 was 10.6 percent by the time they were in their early 30s, but increased to 20.5 percent for those born in 1965–69. Among white men the overall risk of imprisonment grew from 1.4 percent to 2.9 percent over the same time period.


The increase in the incarceration marked a dramatic shift in the life course for young black males. In addition to estimating the risk of incarceration for birth cohorts by race and education, the researchers compared the prevalence of spending time in prison to other important life events for men born in 1965–69 who survived until 1999. Pettit and Western found that 22.4 percent of surviving black men born in that period had spent time in jail, while just 17.4 percent had served in the military and only 12.5 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree.


By the end of 1999, 1.3 million men were in federal or state prisons. The researchers said that changes in penal policy through the 1970s and ’80s, including custodial sentences for drug offenses and mandatory minimum sentences, helped fuel the expansion of the penal system and has led to growing disparities in the risk of incarceration by education.


“Prison is no longer just for the most violent or incorrigible offenders. Inmates are increasingly likely to be serving time for drug offenses or property crimes,” Pettit said. “While there is enduring racial disproportionality in imprisonment, we find that the lifetime risk of incarceration is increasingly stratified by education.


Over the past 30 years the risk of incarceration has grown for both blacks and whites, but has grown the fastest among men who have a high school diploma or less.”


This has become more important, she said, because research shows employers are often reluctant to hire individuals with criminal records, and the economic opportunities of ex-inmates are often limited.

The research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation.