Weekend Reads | U.S. Incarceration Rates Are Decreasing

by Kevin Schofield


This weekend’s read is a stunning report on what’s happening to incarceration rates in the United States, written by researchers at the State University of New York and the University of Wisconsin. From 1972 to 2009, America saw a “prison boom”: The number of individuals incarcerated increased by more than 700%. And the prison boom dramatically and disproportionately affected Black men: 22% of Black men born between 1965 and 1969 served time in prison by age 35, and in 2003, an estimated 1 in 3 Black men born in 2001 could expect to serve time in prison over their lifetime (compared with 1 in 17 white men).

But since then, things have begun to change for the better: Since 2007, the national incarceration rate has dropped by 20%. However, this change has not attracted much attention: While the Bureau of Justice Statistics has published some annual data on the decreasing incarceration rates, there has been little in the way of a comprehensive look at the longer-term trend or the larger demographic impacts it might have.

The researchers attempt to fill this gap by pulling together data from multiple diverse sources on state and federal prison systems, including the National Prisoner Statistics Program, various surveys of inmates, the National Corrections Reporting Program, the Census Bureau, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And what they found is fairly jaw-dropping — and mostly good news.

From 1999 to 2019, incarceration rates have dropped 17% for all men, 14% for white men, 26% for Hispanic men, and a full 44% for Black men. In 1999, 5,159 Black men out of every 100,000 were imprisoned; by 2019, that had dropped to 2,881 per 100,000. To be clear, there is still a large racial disparity in incarceration rates, but it has dramatically narrowed.

The researchers also looked for trends at the state level, and they found that by 2019, all 50 states had seen a decline in incarceration rates for Black men from their peak, and 46 states had seen reductions in the racial disparities. Interestingly, there were no clear partisan divides in the size of the reductions, nor in which ones started early versus late. Washington has seen a 49% reduction from its peak incarceration rate for Black men; Texas’ was 55%, New Hampshire’s 72%, West Virginia’s 8%, and Maine’s 7%. Arizona, Florida, Oregon, and Nevada were the early leaders, starting their decline before 1997; Arkansas, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and North Dakota were the laggards, starting after 2007 (Washington was in the middle, starting in 1998).  

In comparison, across the 50 states, there was no consistent trend in incarceration rates for white men; the median was close to zero, and there was an even distribution above and below. 

The reductions in incarceration rates for Black men were concentrated in younger age groups; the researchers note that this aligns with recent research showing declining arrest rates for young men as well as declining delinquency rates for youth. Black men age 40 or older today have seen little in the way of reductions in incarceration rates, which is not surprising given that they experienced peak incarceration rates in their youth and the “revolving door” of the incarceration system — another related issue.

The researchers also attempted to validate (or recalculate) the earlier estimates of the risk of incarceration for Black men. They found that in 2006, the risk of imprisonment for Black men by age 25 was 20%, but by 2019, that had reduced to 12% — once again, a large racial disparity still remains, but the change is significant. They point out that in 2009, he risk of incarceration for Black men by age 25 was 17.4%, and the likelihood of getting a bachelor’s degree by age 25 was 12%. But by 2019, those figures had flipped: a 12% risk of incarceration, and a 17.7% chance of getting a bachelor’s degree. That speaks to the downstream effects of reducing the incarceration rate: It creates new and better opportunities.

The lifetime risk of incarceration for Black men has also plunged: In 1999, it was 36.4% (approximately 1 in 3), and by 2019, it was 21.1% (about 1 in 5). And the researchers note that this is a conservative view, since it assumes the incarceration rate stays steady at its current level and doesn’t continue to decline. 

The decline in incarceration for Black women is even more dramatic, and the racial disparity seems to be on a path to disappear.

There are a couple of weaknesses with this research report. It only includes data on state and federal prisons, not local jails. Also, it just looks at adult incarceration and not juveniles.

The report also is far from a declaration of victory on decarceration; issues still abound, of which the researchers point out several. For starters, the United States still has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Also, racial disparities have been reduced but not eliminated: Our criminal justice system still contains biases that affect the outcomes for individuals subjected to it. They also note that only recently has incarceration data on American Indians and Alaskan Natives become available, and they suggest their incarceration risk is at least as high as for Black persons.

We also know — and the researchers’ data supports this — that there is a revolving door in our prison system: Being incarcerated dramatically increases your risk of being incarcerated again in the future. The good news is that the decrease in youth incarceration so far will almost certainly mean a big drop in incarceration rates of older adults in the future. The bad news is that it’s still a revolving door for the people who go through it.

There is also a risk of the decarceration trends reversing, or as the researchers say, “there is no law of penal gravity” ensuring that incarceration rates will continue to drop. In fact, the recent increase in homicide rates in several jurisdictions might lead policymakers to “greater punitiveness.”

Still, these numbers are a sign of hope if still far short of the goal. The researchers argue that the decreased incarceration rates, particularly for Black men and women, are reducing the “generational burden” on them as they navigate our country’s economic and social systems, and it will have a cascading positive effect on their children, families, and friends.

A Generational Shift: Race and the Declining Lifetime Risk of Imprisonment


Kevin Schofield
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Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image by Pictrider/Shutterstock.com.

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