A Generational Shift: Race and the Declining Lifetime Risk of Imprisonment by Jason P. Robey, Michael Massoglia, & Michael T. Light (July 2023)



Mass incarceration fundamentally altered the life course for a generation of American men, but sustained declines in imprisonment in recent years raise questions about how incarceration is shaping current generations. This study makes three primary contributions to a fuller understanding of the contemporary landscape of incarceration in the United States. First, we assess the scope of decarceration. Between 1999 and 2019, the Black male incarceration rate dropped by 44%, and notable declines in Black male imprisonment were evident in all 50 states. Second, our life table analysis demonstrates marked declines in the lifetime risks of incarceration. For Black men, the lifetime risk of incarceration declined by nearly half from 1999 to 2019. We estimate that less than 1 in 5 Black men born in 2001 will be imprisoned, compared with 1 in 3 for the 1981 birth cohort. Third, decarceration has shifted the institutional experiences of young adulthood. In 2009, young Black men were much more likely to experience imprisonment than college graduation. Ten years later, this trend had reversed, with Black men more likely to graduate college than go to prison. Our results suggest that prison has played a smaller role in the institutional landscape for the most recent generation compared with the generation exposed to the peak of mass incarceration.