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News >  Crime/Public Safety

America’s prison population is getting whiter

By Keith Humphreys Washington Post

The 21st century has witnessed remarkable decay in the well-being of many non-Hispanic white Americans. In a new report, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton document that non-Hispanic whites who have a high school education or less have experienced reduced life expectancy and increased rates of suicide and addiction. Recent correctional system data highlight another dimension of this population’s travails: They are increasingly spending time in jail.

Because the non-Hispanic white share of the U.S. population has tumbled from 70.9 percent to 61.6 percent since 2000, one might expect its share of the jail population to follow a similar pattern. But the opposite has occurred, with the proportion of non-Hispanic whites growing from 41.9 percent to 48.3 percent of jail inmates. Non-Hispanic whites remain significantly less likely to be jailed than are people of color, a longstanding disparity that would persist for about another decade if present trends continue.

The overall incarceration rate in the U.S. has been declining for the better part of a decade because of decreased crime and increased efforts by state legislatures to reform criminal sentencing. Within the prison population, non-Hispanic whites have been the one population bucking the broader decarceration trend. The same pattern holds within the nation’s jails, where non-Hispanic whites are a growing share of a shrinking inmate population.

The jail inmate population, like the component of the population studied by Case and Deaton, is mainly composed of people with a high school education or less. It’s thus reasonable to speculate that the race and education-specific trends noted by Case and Deaton – increased alcohol and opioid addiction in particular – are related to those within the jail system. Separating cause and effect would be difficult given that addiction increases the risk of incarceration (e.g., for drunk driving) and incarceration can aggravate the impact of addictions (e.g., raising risk of opioid overdose after a period of imposed abstinence). Regardless of how each problem shapes the other, criminal justice system data converge with the health data analyzed by Case and Deaton to highlight the increasing misery of a significant proportion of the country.

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