The Disparate Impact of the Prison Boom

As reported in the Washington Post, a new working paper by University of Chicago economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick demonstrates that the impact of the prison boom has been felt most acutely by Black men (especially uneducated young Black men), for whom the progress that had been made in education, employment, and earnings between 1940 and 1980 was halted and perhaps even reversed.  Relative to White men, Neal and Rick argue, Black men are no better than they were after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965.

Using data from the National Corrections Reporting Program, the Uniform Crime Reports, and the U.S. Census Bureau, the authors look at employment patterns, institutionalization rates, educational achievement to answer two research questions: "(1) How important are changes in criminal justice policies as determinants of the dramatic rise in U.S. incarceration rates during the past three decades and have these changes had differential impacts on black men as opposed to white men? (2) How does properly accounting for growth in incarcerated populations affect our assessment of recent trends in economic inequality among men in the U.S., both overall and between blacks and whites?"

Neal and Rick found that:

  • Black-White differences in potential wages among most groups of men in 2010 were comparable to the corresponding differences observed in 1970 and greater, in absolute value, than those recorded in 1980.
  • The sentencing policy changes that have been implemented since 1980 have resulted in harsher punishments in each major crime category and have had a larger impact on Black communities than White communities.
  • Black-White inequality and overall earnings inequality have been further affected by the Great Recession: "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."

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Frederique Laubepin

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