Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration

Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration
Author(s): Becky Pettit and Bruce WesternSource: American Sociological Review, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Apr., 2004), pp. 151-169Published by: American Sociological AssociationStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3593082 .Accessed: 01/04/2013 22:46Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. .American Sociological Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toAmerican Sociological Review.http://www.jstor.org
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Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course:
Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration
Becky Pettit Bruce Western
Universityo f Washington PrincetonU niversity
Although growth in the
prisonp opulationo ver thep ast twenty-fivye ears has been
widelyd iscussedf, ew studiese xaminec hangesi n inequalityi n imprisonmentW. es tudy
penal inequalityb y estimatingl ifetimer iskso f imprisonmenfot r blacka nd whitem ena t
differentle vels of education.C ombininga dministratives,u rvey,a nd census data, we
estimate that among men born between 1965 and 1969, 3 percent of whites and 20
percent ofblacks had served time in prison by their early thirties. The risks of
incarcerationa re highlys tratifiedb y educationA. mongb lackm enb ornd uringt his
period, 30percent of those without college education and nearly 60percent of high
school dropoutsw ent to prison by 1999. Then ovelp ervasivenesso f imprisonment
indicatest he emergenceo f incarcerationa s a new stage in the life course ofyoung lowskill
black men.
Has the growth of the American penal system
over the past thirty years transformed
the path to adulthood followed by disadvantaged
minority men? Certainly the prison boom
affected many young black men. The U.S. penal
population increased six fold between 1972 and
2000, leaving 1.3 million men in state and federal
prisons by the end of the century. By 2002,
around 12 percent of black men in their twenties
were in prison or jail (Harrison and Karberg
2003). High incarcerationr ates led researchers
to claim that prison time had become a normal
part of the early adulthood for black men in
poor urban neighborhoods (Freeman 1996;
Irwin and Austin 1997). In this period of mass
imprisonment, it was argued, official criminality
attached not just to individual offenders, but
to whole social groups defined by their race,
age, and class (Garland 2001a:2).
Claims for the new ubiquity of imprisonment
acquire added importance given recent
research on the effects of incarceration. The
persistent disadvantage of low-education
African Americans is, however, usually linked
not to the penal system but to large-scale social
forces like urband eindustrializationr,e sidential
segregation, or wealth inequality (Wilson 1987;
Massey and Denton 1993; Oliver and Shapiro
1997). However, evidence shows incarceration
is closely associated with low wages, unemployment,
family instability, recidivism, and
restrictions on political and social rights
(Western, Kling and Weiman 2000; Hagan and
Dinovitzer 1999; Sampson and Laub 1993;
Uggen and Manza 2002; Hirsch et al. 2002). If
indeed imprisonment became commonplace
among young disadvantageda nd minoritym en
through the 1980s and 1990s, a variety of other
social inequalities may have deepened as a
Although deepening inequality in incarceration
and the pervasive imprisonment of
Direct all correspondence to Becky Pettit,
Departmenotf SociologyU, niversitoyf Washington,
202 SaveryH all,B ox 353340,S eattle,W A9 8195-
3350( [email protected] )r uceW estern,
Departmento f Sociology, PrincetonU niversity,
PrincetoNn J0 8544( [email protected])a.f ts
of thisp aperw erep resenteda t the annuaml eetings
of theP opulatioAn ssociationo f America2, 001 and
the AmericanS ociologicaAl ssociation2, 001.T his
research was supported by the Russell Sage
Foundation and grant SES-0004336 from the
NationaSl cienceF oundatioWn. eg ratefullayc knowledge
participantisn the DevianceW orkshopat the
Universityo f WashingtonA, ngus Deaton,R obert
Lalonde, Steve Levitt, Ross MacMillan, Charlie
Hirschmana, ndA SR reviewersf or helpfulc omments
on this paper.
AMERICASNO CIOLOGICREAVLI EW2, oo004V, OL.6 9 (April:151-169)
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disadvantagedm en is widely asserted,t herea re
few systematic empirical tests. To study how the
prison boom may have reshaped the life paths
of young men, we estimate the prevalence of
imprisonment and its distribution among black
and white men, aged 15 to 34, between 1979 and
1999. We also compare the prevalence of imprisonment
to other life events-college graduation
and military service-that are more commonly
thought to mark the path to adulthood.
Many have studied variation in imprisonment
but our analysis departs from earlier
research in two ways. First, the risk of incarceration
is usually measured by an incarceration
rate-the overnight count of the penal population
as a fraction of the total population (e.g.,
Sutton 2000; Jacobs and Helms 1996). Much
like college graduationo r militarys ervice however,
having a prison record confers a persistent
status that can significantly influence life
trajectories. Our analysis estimates how the
cumulative risk of incarceration grows as men
age from their teenage years to their early thirties.
To contrast the peak of the prison boom in
the late 1990s with the penal system of the late
1970s, cumulative risks of imprisonment are
calculated for successive birth cohorts, born
1945-49 to 1965-69. Second, although economic
inequality in imprisonment may have
increasedm, ost empiricalr esearchj ust examines
racial disparity (e.g., Blumstein 1993; Mauer
1999;B ridges,C rutchfielda, ndP itchford1 994).
To directly examine how the prison boom affected
low-skill black men, our analysis estimates
imprisonment risks at different levels of education.
Evidence that imprisonment became
disproportionatelwy idespreada mongl ow-education
black men strengthens the case that the
penal system has become an important new
feature of American race and class inequality.
The full extent of the prison boom can be seen
in a long historical perspective. Between 1925
and 1975, the prison incarcerationr ateh overed
around 100 per 100,000 of the resident population.
By 2001, the imprisonment rate, at 472
per 100,000, approached 5 times its historic
average. The prisoners reflected in these statistics
account for two-thirds of the U.S. penal
population, the remainder being held in local
jails. In 1997, about a third of state prisoners in
1997 had committed homicide, rape, or robbery,
while property and drug offenders each
accounted for one-fifth of all state inmates. In
that same year, more than 60 percent of Federal
prisoners were serving time for drug crimes
(Maguire and Pastore 2001: 519). Nearly all
prisoners serve a minimum of one year, with
state drug offenders in 1996 serving just over 2
years on average, compared to over 11 years for
murderers. In federal prison, average time
served for drug offenders was 40 months in
1996 (Blumstein and Beck 1999:36, 49). These
lengthy periods of confinement are distributed
unequally across the population: More than 90
percento f prisonersa rem en, incarcerationra tes
for blacks are about eight times higher than
those for whites, and prison inmates average less
than 12 years of completed schooling.
High incarcerationr atesa mong black and loweducation
men have been traced to similar
sources. The slim economic opportunities and
turbulent living conditions of young disadvantaged
and black men may lead them to crime.
In addition, elevated rates of offending in poor
andm inorityn eighborhoodsc ompoundt he stigma
of social marginalitya ndp rovoket he scrutiny
of criminal justice authorities.
Research on carceral inequalities usually
examines racial disparity in state imprisonment.
The leading studies of Blumstein (1982, 1993)
find that arrest rates-particularly for serious
offenses like homicide-explain a large share
of the black-white difference in incarceration.
Because police arrests reflect crime in the population
and policing effort, arrest rates are an
imperfect measure of criminal involvement.
More direct measurement of the race of criminal
offenders is claimed for surveys of crime
victims who report the race of their assailants.
Victimization data similarly suggest that the
disproportionatien volvemento f blacksi n crime
explains most of the racial disparity in incarceration
(Langan 1985). These results are buttressed
by research associating violent and other
crime in blackn eighborhoodsw ith joblessness,
family disruption, and neighborhood poverty
(e.g., Crutchfield and Pitchford 1997; Messner
et al. 2001; LaFree and Drass 1996; Morenoff
et al. 2001; see the review of Sampson and
Lauritsen 1997). In short, most of the racial
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disparity in imprisonment is attributed to high
black crime rates for imprisonable offenses
(Tonry 1995, 79).
Although crime rates may explain as much as
80 percent of the disparity in imprisonment
(Tonry 1995), a significant residual suggests that
blacks are punitively policed, prosecuted, and
sentenced. Sociologists of punishment link this
differential treatment to official perceptions of
blacks as threatening or troublesome (Tittle
1994). The racial threat theory is empirically
supported by research on sentencing and incarceration
rates. Strongest evidence for racially
differential treatment is found for some offenses
and in some jurisdictions rather than at the
aggregate level. African Americans are at especially
high risk of incarceration, given their
arrest rates, for drug crimes and burglary
(Blumstein 1993). States with large white populationsa
lso tend to incarcerateb lacks at a high
rate,c ontrollingf or race-specifica rrestr atesa nd
demographic variables (Bridges et al. 1994). A
large residual racial disparity in imprisonment
thus appears due to the differential treatment of
African Americans by police and the courts.
Similar to the analysis of race, class disparities
may also be rooted in patterns of crime
and criminal processing. Our analysis captures
class divisions with a measure of educational
attainment. Education, of course, correlates
with measures of occupation and employment
status that more commonly feature in research
on class and crime (for reviews see Braithwaite
1979; Hagan, Gillis, and Brownfield 1996).
Just as the social strain of economic disadvantage
may push the poor into crime (Merton
1968; Cloward and Ohlin 1960), those with little
schooling also experience frustration at
blocked opportunities. Time series analysis
shows that levels of schooling significantly
affect race-specific arrest rates (LaFree and
Drass 1996). While a good proxy for economic
status, school failure also contributes directly
to delinquency. Whether crime is produced by
the oppositional subculture of school dropouts,
as Cohen (1955) suggests, or by weakened
networks of informal social control (Hagan
1993), poor academic performance and weak
attachment to school is commonplace in the
biographies of delinquents and adult criminals
(Sampson and Laub 1993, ch. 5; Hagan
and McCarthy 1997; Wolfgang, Figlio and
Sellin 1972). High incarceration rates may
therefore result from high crime rates among
young men with little schooling.
As for racial minorities, researchers also
argue that the poor are perceived as threatening
to social order by criminal justice officials (e.g.,
Rusche and Kirchheimer 1968; Spitzer 1975;
Jacobs and Helms 1996). The poor thus attract
the disproportionate attention of authorities,
either in the way criminal law is written or
applied by police and the courts. Consistent
with this view, time series of incarcerationr ates
are correlated with unemployment rates and
otherm easureso f economic disadvantagee, ven
after crime rates are controlled (Chiricos and
Delone 1992). Few studies focus on education,
as we do, but class bias in criminal sentencing
is suggested by findings that more educated
federal defendants receive relatively short sentences
in general, and are less likely to be incarcerated
for drug crimes (Steffensmeier and
Demuth 2000). Thus, imprisonment may be
more common among low-education men
because they are the focus of the social control
efforts of criminal justice authorities.
While research on offending and incarceration
explains race and class inequalities in imprisonment
at a point in time, these inequalities
may have sharpened over the last thirty years as
prisons grew. Some claim that criminal offending
at the bottom of the social hierarchy rose
with the depletiono f economic opportunitiesin
inner cities. Others argue that punitive drug
policy and tough-on-crime justice policy-the
wars on drugs and crime-affected mostly lowskill
minority men.
Increasing crime among low-education men
is often seen to result from declining economic
opportunities for unskilled workers. Urban
ethnographerms aket his case in studieso f drugrelatedg
ang activity( e.g., Venkatesha nd Levitt
1998; Bourgois 1995). Severalr esearchersa lso
link growing crime in poor urban neighborhoods
to increased rates of imprisonment.
Freeman (1996) argued that young black men
in the 1980s and 1990s turned to crime in
response decliningj ob opportunitiesA. ll forms
of criminal justice supervision, including incarceration,
probation and parole, increased as a
consequence (Freeman 1996, 26). Duster (1996)
similarly argues that the collapse of legitimate
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employment in poor urban neighborhoods drew
young black men into the illegal drug trade,
steeply increasing their risks of arrest and incarceration.
These analyses suggest that race

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