Charting the shocking rise of racial disparity in our criminal justice system

The position of most black men, relative to white men, is no better than how things stood after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965. That's the sobering conclusion of a new paper out from University of Chicago economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick, who find that the considerable economic progress among black men between 1940 and 1980 has halted, and in many cases reversed.

A major driver of this shift has been the rise of more punitive treatments for criminal offenders, resulting in skyrocketing incarceration rates. These changes "have had a much larger impact on black communities than white communities because arrest rates have historically been much greater for blacks than whites," the authors write.

For a sense of the scale of these disparities, take a look at the chart below.

incarceration

The authors write:

Since 1980, incarceration rates among both black and white men in most age groups have increased by factors of two to three... On any given day in 2010, almost one in ten black men ages 20-39 were institutionalized, and rates of institutionalization were actually slightly higher among black men in 2000. Further, because turnover among prison populations is quite high, these results suggest that far more than ten percent of prime age black men will serve some time in prison or jail during a given calendar year.

The rise in the institutionalized population among black men without a high school diploma has been even more dramatic. By 2010, nearly a third of black, male high school dropouts aged 25-29 were imprisoned or otherwise institutionalized. This is higher than the employment rate for the same group, which was less than 25 percent.

The net effect of all this? "Prison spells harm the future labor market prospects of arrested offenders, and black men likely now face worse labor market prospects relative to white men than they faced when policy shifts in the late 1970s and early 1980s ignited the prison boom," the authors write. Because this sharp rise in incarceration is a relatively new phenomenon, researchers are just now wrapping their heads around the implications for society-wide racial and economic equality.

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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