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Blacks at All Wealth Levels Are More Likely Than Whites to Be Incarcerated

More evidence that race plays a role in who goes to jail in the U.S.
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(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

It's well-known that African Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of America's prison population. A report issued last year found that, among black males born in 2001, one in three will be in prison at some point in their lives. That compares to one in six Hispanic males, and one in 17 white males.

Newly published research adds a disheartening wrinkle to these statistics. It finds that, compared to their white counterparts, "the likelihood of future incarceration was higher for blacks at every level of wealth."

"Wealth does not provide the same degree of insulation from imprisonment for black and Hispanic males as it does for white males," says Duke University economist William Darity. He co-authored the paper, which is published in the journal Race and Social Problems, with his Duke colleague Khaing Zaw and Darrick Hamilton of the New School of Social Research.

The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979, a survey of 12,686 young Americans who were 14 to 22 years old when first interviewed that year. They were interviewed yearly from 1979 to 1994, and every other year thereafter. About 80 percent were still participating in 2012.

Even if his family was reasonably well off during his young-adult years, a black man in America is still more likely than a white man to end up in jail.

Researchers noted whether they were in jail or prison at the time of each survey—a method that does not capture prison terms that started and were completed between the interviews, and thus probably underestimates incarceration rates.

Their families' assets and debts were first reported in 1985, when the youngest participants turned 20. (Additional data was provided in subsequent years, until an estimate of the net worth of each participant was created in 2008.)

Not surprisingly, the researchers found "higher levels of wealth (in 1985) were associated with lower rates of incarceration." On the other side of the equation, they found "low wealth is associated with an increase in the likelihood of incarceration, which in turn can depress wealth accumulation."

Their most startling finding, however, was about the inconsistent way family wealth impacts members of different races.

"For comparable levels of wealth in 1985, when the respondents were entering young adulthood," they write, "blacks, Hispanics, and whites had disparate likelihoods of incarceration. As a result, we find that wealth is relevant to the prospect of incarceration."

Getting specific, the researchers found that "At low levels of wealth (at the baseline), both blacks and Hispanics had a higher incarceration rate than whites," they report. "Although the black-white incarceration disparity was reduced for males (at higher levels of wealth), it was not eliminated."

So, even if he or his family are reasonably well-off, a young black man in America is still more likely than a young white man to eventually end up in jail.

In contrast, "for Hispanic males starting with higher levels of wealth, odds of incarceration are similar to those of white males at comparable wealth levels," the researchers write. "Why Hispanic males experience this convergence, but not black males, we leave to further study."

Looking for possible explanations, the researchers note that factors "such as education, job experience, and social connections may differ greatly among those with similar wealth levels." Such differences may explain the disparity in incarceration levels, along with other variables including "exposure to discrimination."

That presumably includes discriminatory practices by law-enforcement officials.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.