A 2003 Justice Department-sponsored study reported that if imprisonment rates remained the same as they were in 2001, 1 out of every 3 Black men born that year could expect to be put behind bars during his lifetime. The figure for White men was 1 of every 17. That projection did much to galvanize public opinion in favor of criminal justice reform. It did not materialize, writes columnist Charles Lane in the Washington Post. The overall U.S. incarceration rate peaked between 2006 and 2008 and it has been declining since then. The rate for Black men fell faster during the past two decades than that for White men (and other groups), contrary to expectations in 2003. Since the 2003 DOJ study appeared, chances that Black men would not go to prison improved so much that the actual lifetime “incarceration risk” for those born in 2001 turned out to be fewer than 1 in 5 — about 40 percent lower than the oft-cited 1 in 3 figure. This connotes a modest reduction in racial inequality generally.
The hopeful findings about racially disparate incarceration rates emerge from a study in the peer-reviewed journal Demography. It includes such data as the fact that, whereas 5,159 out of every 100,000 Black men were imprisoned in 1999, the rate had fallen to 2,881 per 100,000 by 2019 — a 44 percent decrease. Almost every state saw a decline in its incarceration rate for Black men. The reduction from a 1 in 3 chance of imprisonment to a 1 in 5 chance translates to 31,000 fewer Black men born in 2001 ending up behind bars than projected. The Demography study notes that this number is roughly equivalent to the entire Black male prison population of California in 2019. Partly as a result of these positive trends, Black men are now more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 25 than to have been in prison: The respective population shares, as of 2019, are 17.7 percent and 12 percent. As recently as 2009, the opposite was the case, with 17.4 percent of 25-year-old Black men having gone to prison but only 12.8 percent having finished college. Furthermore, the study’s estimated 1 in 5 lifetime incarceration risk could be an overestimate. It was based on the assumption that incarceration rates would remain at the level of 2019, the last year in their data set. In reality, though, rates have continued to drift down since then. The study acknowledges that U.S. crime and incarceration rates are still well above those of peer nations.