In 2005, over 2 million U.S. residents were in prisons or jails. The incarceration rate, 737 of every 100,000 U.S. residents, was over five times the rate among European Community nations. Moreover, the current high incarceration rate and the increases over the past 30 years represent a significant departure from the incarceration levels that characterized much of the 20th century. For example, prior to the 1970s, the number of inmates in state and federal prisons consistently hovered around 110 per 100,000. Since 1970, this rate has increased by more than fourfold.
These sharp increases in incarceration rates have left in their wake a large and growing population of former inmates, also unevenly distributed by race and ethnicity. About 3 percent of white males and 8 percent of Hispanic males, but 20 percent of all black adult males, have served prison time at some point in their lives. One study has estimated that among black men born between 1965 and 1969, 20.5 percent have been to prison. Among black men without a high school diploma, that figure rose to 58.9 percent. Such rates of incarceration do not bode well for the economic and social prospects of minority men and their partners, children, and communities. Employment and financial difficulties, poor marriage outcomes, disruption and instability in children’s lives, and increased rates of communicable diseases such as HIV-AIDS have all been documented among the communities so disproportionately affected by incarceration policies. To take only one example: From 1980 to 2000 the proportion of economically active black men fell 23 percentage points among high school dropouts, and 7 percent even among those with some college education. Indeed, employment rates for black males fell below those for black women in every educational group save for college graduates. No such pattern previously existed among African Americans or among any other racial or ethnic group.
This essay has focused primarily on the adverse consequences of incarceration for the employment prospects and economic stability of ex-prisoners and, inevitably, of their families. Corrections and incarceration policies put in place over the last quarter century, I argue, have weighed disproportionately upon low-skilled minorities, especially blacks, and have seen diminishing returns to their increasingly heavy costs. Given the likely small effects of the current levels of incarceration on crime, there are other public investments that may fulfill the same purpose while providing many other social benefits. (author abstract)