The mammoth increase in the United States' prison population since the 1970s is having profound demographic consequences that disproportionately affect black males.
"This jump in incarceration rates represents a massive intervention in American families at a time when the federal government was making claims that it was less involved in their lives," according to a University of Washington researcher who will present findings Sunday (Aug. 3) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
Drawing data from a variety of sources that looked at prison and general populations, Becky Pettit, a UW associate professor of sociology, and Bryan Sykes, a UW post-doctoral researcher, found that the boom in prison population is hiding lowered rates of fertility and increased rates of involuntary migration to rural areas and morbidity that is marked by a greater exposure to and risk of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV or AIDS.
These effects are most heavily felt by low-skill black males, and she said the disproportionately high incarceration rates among African-Americans suggest the prison system is a key suspect in these demographic results.
Pettit said well-documented facts – one in 100 Americans is behind bars in 2008, about 2.4 million people currently are incarcerated and nearly 60 percent of young black males who dropped out of high school have served time in jail – don't seem to register with Americans.
"These kinds of rates were not historically true 30 years ago. Today, we are giving people custodial sentences that we wouldn't have in the past for victimless crimes. Our justice system has become more punitive," she said, adding that most demographic data collection is decades behind the times and masks this racial disproportionality. That's because most surveys, which are federally funded, were begun in the 1960s and 70s and excluded the prison population, which was significantly smaller at that time.
In addition, she noted that the effects of an ever-growing criminal justice system extend beyond those who are serving sentences to include children, partners and even entire communities. Among the findings outlined in Pettit's presentation are:
The survey focused on African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites because earlier surveys did not collect data about such groups as Hispanics or Asian-Americans or because the sample sizes from these groups were too small to draw valid statistical judgments. The study also only looked at men between the ages of 25 and 44 and broke them into three groups – high school dropouts, high school graduates and those with a college degree or some college education
Pettit said she hopes her work can be a springboard for better and more inclusive data collection that paints a more accurate demographic picture of the U.S. population.
"We usually don't think of the prison system as something that is a policy shift. But the public health risks and the effects on migration and fertility show that it has had fundamental consequences for all of us," she said.
"It is in our own self-interest to be concerned. And certainly from a fiscal standpoint we have an interest. In times of financial difficulty, we have a fixed amount of money and for every dollar we spend on incarceration we have one dollar less to spend on education and other things. This is a challenging public policy question."
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