Imprisonment and Disenfranchisement of Disconnected Low-Income Men. The Male Prison Population Has Grown


A 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts report provides additional dimensions to the Bureau of Justice Statistics incarceration data. It focuses on incarceration’s negative long-term effects on former prisoners’ economic mobility and its consequences on families and children. The Pew report highlights the dramatic rise in incarceration rates from 1980 to 2008, especially among African American men and men without high school diplomas. Nationally, the number of men age 20–34 in prison during that time increased 1.2 percentage points among white men and 1.4 percentage points among Hispanic men, compared with 6.2 percentage points among African American men (figure 2).

Figure 3. Lifetime Likelihood of Incarceration among Men Born in 1974 versus 2001 by Race and Ethnicity

Lifetime Likelihood of Incarceration among Men Born in 1974 versus 2001 by Race and Ethnicity

Source: Thomas Bonczar, “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the US Population, 1974–2001,” NCJ 197976 (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003).

Note: African American refers to non-Hispanic African American or black and includes those who identified themselves as black or African American only. White refers to non-Hispanic white and includes those who identified themselves as white only. People of Hispanic origin may be of any race.

Among high school dropouts, incarceration rates increased precipitously, especially among African Americans:

  • In 1980, 2.4 percent of white male dropouts were incarcerated, compared with 10.6 percent of African American male dropouts and 3.2 percent of Hispanic male dropouts.
  • By 2008, the percentages had increased to 12 percent of white male dropouts, 37.1 percent of African American men, and 7 percent of Hispanic men of any race (Pew Charitable Trusts 2010).

Despite the overall growth in prison rates, national statistics show a declining rate in the total proportion of prisoners who are African American, which fell from 46 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2010 (Guerino, Harrison, and Sabol 2011).

Lifetime likelihood of imprisonment has increased

Another way to measure incarceration trends is to examine the likelihood that a man will enter prison at some point in his lifetime. In a special report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Thomas Bonczar (2003) finds that white,

African American, and Hispanic men born in 2001 are significantly more likely to spend some time in prison than

white, African American, or Hispanic men born in 1974 (figure 3).6 According to the report, if present trends continue, the lifetime likelihood of going to prison for men born in 2001 will be triple the likelihood of those born in

1974 (11.3 versus 3.6 percent). These data demonstrate that future generations of men, particularly men of color, are statistically more likely than past generations of men to spend time in prison at some point in their lives. Evidence further suggests that future generations of children are more likely to have an incarcerated parent. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the share of children under 18 with an incarcerated parent rose from 0.8 percent in 1980 to 3.6 percent in 2008. In 2008, 11.4 per-cent of African American children had a parent in prison, compared with 3.5 percent of Hispanic children and 1.8 percent of white children (Pew Charitable Trusts 2010).

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