Mass Incarceration and Racial Inequality
BECKY PETTIT * and CARMEN GUTIERREZ †
ABSTRACT . Despite two decades of declining crime rates, the United
States continues to incarcerate a historically and comparatively large
segment of the population. Moreover, incarceration and other forms
of criminal justice contact ranging from police stops to community
supervision are disproportionately concentrated among African
American and Latino men. Mass incarceration, and other ways in
which the criminal justice system infiltrates the lives of families, has
critical implications for inequality. Differential rates of incarceration
damage the social and emotional development of children whose parents
are in custody or under community supervision. The removal
through incarceration of a large segment of earners reinforces existing
income and wealth disparities. Patterns of incarceration and felony
convictions have devastating effects on the level of voting, political
engagement, and overall trust in the legal system within communities.
Incarceration also has damaging effects on the health of families and
communities. In short, the costs of mass incarceration are not simply
collateral consequences for individuals but are borne collectively ,
most notably by African Americans living in acutely disadvantaged
communities that experience high levels of policing and surveillance.
In this article, we review racial and ethnic differences in exposure to
the criminal justice system and its collective consequences.
American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 77, Nos. 3-4 (May-September, 2018).
© 2018 The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Inc.
* Barbara Pierce Bush Regents Professor of Liberal Arts in Sociology at the University
of Texas–Austin. Her most recent book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth
of Black Progress (Russell Sage Foundation 2012), investigates how decades of growth
in America ’ s prisons and jails obscures basic accounts of racial inequality. Email:
[email protected]. This research was supported by grant P2CHD042849, Population
Research Center, awarded to the Population Research Center at the University of Texas
at Austin by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not
necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
† Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research explores issues at the intersection of stratification,
the criminal justice system, and health, with an emphasis on how inequalities arise
across race, ethnicity, and citizenship. Email: [email protected].
1154 The American Journal of Economics and Sociology
Despite two decades of declining crime rates and significant and sustained
policy attention to criminal justice reform, the United States
continues to incarcerate a comparatively large segment of the population.
(For a discussion of some recent policy initiatives, see Obama
( 2017 ).) The United States experienced unprecedented increases in
the volume and rate of incarceration between the mid-1970s and the
first decade of the 2000s. The number of individuals incarcerated in
America’s prisons and jails peaked in 2008, when just over 2.3 million
people, or 1 in 100 adults, were behind bars. Recent estimates
suggest that close to 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United
States on any given day (Carson 2018 ). Figure 1 shows that although
Incarceration and crime trends in the U.S., 1980–2016.
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics ( 1980–2016 ) for incarceration
rates. U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation ( 1980–2016 ) for crime rates. U.S.
National Cancer Institute ( 1969–2017 ) for resident population of the
Note: The incarceration rate includes prison and jail inmates.
1 The adult population includes all U.S. residents ages 18 and older.
2 The population includes all U.S. residents of all ages.
Mass Incarceration and Racial Inequality 1155
crime rates hover near their lowest level in decades, the incarceration
rate is three times higher than the rate in 1980.
High rates of incarceration in the contemporary United States are
also unique in comparison to incarceration rates in other countries.
Even after recent declines in the total number of people held in prisons
and jails, the United States continues to incarcerate a much higher
fraction of its population than any other wealthy nation in the world.
People living in the United States are more than 10 times as likely
to be in prison or jail as people living in Denmark, Sweden, or the
Netherlands and four times as likely compared to residents of the
United Kingdom (Aebi, Mélanie, and Burkhardt 2016 ; Coyle et al.
2016 ; Hartney 2006 ; Kaeble and Cowhig 2018 ).
Mass incarceration, or the widespread incapacitation of people in
prisons and jails, does not randomly or equally affect all subgroups
in the population. Rather, mass incarceration is characterized by its
systematic targeting of particular segments of the population (Garland
2001 ). Indeed, like other forms of criminal justice contact, incarceration
is disproportionately concentrated among men, African Americans,
and those with low levels of formal schooling. No other group suffers
the overwhelming likelihood of imprisonment experienced by young
black males in the United States who do not complete high school
(Pettit and Western 2004) ; Western and Wildeman 2009 ; Pettit 2012 ;
Travis et al. 2014 : ch. 2).
Despite the concentrated incarceration of young black men, the
effects of mass incarceration extend well beyond the individuals living
behind bars. Mass incarceration has generated not only direct implications
for inequality through the systematic removal of young black
men from free society but also indirect consequences for inequality
as a result of its impacts on children, families, and communities that
simultaneously suffer. Mass incarceration, and other forms of criminal
justice contact, from police stops to community-based supervision,
generate consequences related to employment, wages, political engagement,
health, neighborhood stability, and a host of other considerations
(Clear 2007 ; Kling 2006 ; Lee, Porter, and Comfort 2014 ;
Massoglia, Firebaugh, and Warner 2013 ; Massoglia and Pridemore
2015 ; Pager 2003 , Pager 2007 ; Sampson and Loeffler 2010 ; Schnittker
1156 The American Journal of Economics and Sociology
and John 2007 ; Uggen and Manza 2002 ; Weaver and Lerman 2010 ;
Western 2002, 2006 ; Western and Pettit 2000 ). In this article, we discuss
research on the consequences of incarceration and the other
ways the criminal justice system disrupts people’s lives and how exposure
to the system and its effects collectively impact social equality.
Trends in Exposure to Mass Incarceration and
Criminal Justice Contact
After steadily rising for nearly 40 years, the number of people incarcerated
in the United States has hovered close to 2.2 million throughout
the last decade (Kaeble and Cowhig 2018 ). Other forms of criminal
justice supervision such as probation and parole have also grown to
the extent that an additional 4.7 million people are under the surveillance
of probation or parole agencies (Kaeble 2018 ). Far more commonly
than either incarceration or community supervision, however,
people encounter the criminal justice system for misdemeanor, or
other relatively minor, infractions. Estimates suggest that nearly 20
million people have a felony conviction (Shannon et al. 2012 ). Around
70 million Americans, or slightly more than one-third of adults, have
a criminal record (Sentencing Project 2014a ). Nearly 25 million people
are pulled over each year for routine traffic stops that can carry criminal
sanctions, like fines and fees, which may widen the net of criminal
justice involvement (Langton and Matthew 2013 ). A growing body
of research considers how misdemeanor offenses, or other relatively
minor infractions against the law, shape the way people interact with
the police and the judicial system even in the absence of spending
time in prison or jail (Comfort 2016 ; Kohler-Hausmann 2013 , 2018 ;
Lageson 2016 ; Napatoff 2015 ; Uggen et al. 2014 ). Excessive and unnecessary
traffic stops uniquely concentrated among African Americans
can fuel racial inequality in experiences with a maze of criminal justice
procedures and their consequences (Baumgartener et al. 2018 ).
Simple counts of the number of people incarcerated, under criminal
justice supervision, arrested, or stopped by the police do not
fully reveal the extent to which different forms of contact with the
criminal justice system are stratified by gender, race, ethnicity, or education
and thus represent a critical axis of inequality. Table 1 presents
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