Skip to main content

Inequality in Lifetime Risks of Incarceration

Growth in the U.S. penal system over the last 25 years has produced extraordinarily high incarceration rates among unskilled men. In 1996 more than 7% of young white male high school dropouts and 36% of young black male dropouts were in prison or jail (Western and Pettit 2000). High incarceration rates together with the poor job prospects of ex-inmates suggest that the prison system has expanded its historical role of punishing the most severe criminal offenders to providing an institutionalized influence over the life chances of a large proportion of disadvantaged men. This paper examines the extent to which prison time has become a routine event in the life course of unskilled and minority men. We investigate this idea by estimating detailed incarceration rates and cumulative risks of imprisonment by age, race, ethnicity, and education. Although many researchers try to explain the growth in incarceration, few study the changing composition of the inmate pool and the incarceration risks of different demographic groups. A detailed picture of these risks is central to assessing the impact of prison system growth on broad patterns of social inequality.