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Mass Incarceration in America: An Interview with Becky Pettit

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
June 26, 2012

incarcerationBecky Pettit is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. She is a sociologist, trained in demographic methods, with interests in social inequality (broadly defined). A former Visiting Scholar, she is the author of Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, an eye-opening examination of how mass incarceration has concealed decades of racial inequality.

Q: There have been a number of books published recently that discuss the explosion of incarceration in America. I’m thinking in particular of Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow, which received a lot of attention last year. What does Invisible Men add to the conversation about race and imprisonment?

A: Invisible Men is a critique of our national data systems and the social facts they produce. When you hear the unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, those data come from the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of 50,000-60,000 individuals living in households. The Current Population Survey and many other data sources used to frame our understanding of the American population exclude people who don’t live in households – like inmates, people living in military barracks, or people living in long-term care facilities for the mentally ill. The inmate population is now so large and so disproportionately concentrated among young, low-skill black men that it distorts portraits of the population based on samples of people living in households. So, unlike Alexander, I don’t try and explain the buildup of the criminal justice system itself. Instead, I consider the implications of mass incarceration on patterns of racial inequality.

Q: Let’s talk about the subtitle of your book – "the myth of black progress." What exactly do you mean by that? Do you feel contemporary accounts in the media and by scholars routinely overstate progress?

A: Yes, the media and scholars routinely overstate the well-being of black Americans. Many Americans want desperately to believe in the American dream and believe we live in a colorblind society. We have an African American president. There is a healthy black middle-class. And, if you focus your attention only on data from the household population -- which most assessments of the population are based – it is easy enough to believe that blacks have made progress on a number of social indicators. When data exclude the most disadvantaged segments of the population, they do show a decline in the race gap in high school dropout rates, modest employment gains for blacks, wage increases among blacks with the lowest levels of education, and increases in voter turnout.

What I show in my work is that if you include inmates, things aren’t quite as they seem. Over the past 35 years the penal population has increased five-fold. 2.3 million Americans are now behind bars and 1 in 31 American adults is now under some form of correctional supervision. Nowhere is incarceration more prevalent than in the African American community. My research shows that one in nine black men was incarcerated on any given day in 2008 and that 37 percent of young, black, male dropouts were behind bars.

It seems obvious to say, but prison and jail inmates live in correctional institutions, not households. As a result, they aren’t included in conventional data sources. And that means that conventional data sources generate overly optimistic accounts of black progress on a range of fronts.

Q: A crucial argument in your book involves America’s national data collection efforts, which you say are fundamentally flawed and outdated, since they do not take into account the country’s now-record prison population. Give us an example or two of data estimates – say, high school dropout rates or voter turnout – that produce significantly different results when adjusted to include inmates in samples.

A: In 2008, data from the Current Population Survey placed the high school dropout rate of young black men at 13.5 percent, evidence of a decline in the black-white gap in high school completion over the past few decades. Yet large urban school districts, which are disproportionately black, routinely report that 50 percent or more of their students drop out. What is going on? It turns out that if you include prison and jail inmates, the estimate of the nationwide high school dropout rate among young black men is actually 19 percent, 40 percent higher than conventional estimates suggest. Moreover, including inmates in assessments of high school completion indicates no improvement in the black-white gap in high school graduation rates among men since the early 1990s. Estimates suggest that the gap in high school completion has hovered close to its current level of 11 percentage points for most of the past 20 years.

Another estimate that I find particularly striking relates to employment rates. Data that don’t include inmates show that 41.9 percent of young, black, male dropouts were employed in 2008. Including inmates we find that close to one quarter, or 26.3 percent, of young, black men without a high school diploma were employed on a given day in 2008. If you recall incarceration rates I mentioned earlier, that means that more young black men without a high school diploma were incarcerated (37%) than were employed (26.3%).

Q: You give a brief overview of the history of federal survey in your book, but I wonder what can be done to make them better in the future. How can we better incorporate what you call "the full range of the American experience"?

A: Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of our data collection efforts is an important first step. There are many potential ways to better incorporate the full range of the American experience. One involves redesigning data collection efforts to include inmates and other disadvantaged populations. Inmates are relatively easy to find, but other disadvantaged populations (e.g., undocumented immigrants, people who are unstably housed or homeless, children in the foster care system, veterans) may be more difficult to reach. Another method involves making statistical adjustments to our estimates. We can combine different sources of data – like I have in my book – but those data aren’t always available or readily accessible to researchers or policymakers. We have the tools to do it: survey methodologists and statisticians have thought a lot about how to capture the experiences of ‘special’, ‘hard-to-reach’, or ‘marginalized’ populations and how to combine data from different sources. But, it will require us to make a commitment to doing research differently and not being willing to ignore subgroups of the population.

Q: The American prison population grew dramatically in the 20th century, but many have expressed optimism that states’ dire finances will force a rethink in sentencing policies. What’s your take on the situation?

A: State budgets are increasingly tight and we’ve seen some examples of curtailed state spending on the criminal justice system. California has been court-ordered to release some inmates due to issues related to overcrowding. But, the prison and jail population is still at record highs. The choices are really hard and I don’t anticipate that penal population will suddenly revert to pre-1980 levels. No one wants to be viewed as soft on crime, so it is hard to imagine how such change might occur. I worry that states will divert money from other services – education, for example – to maintain the criminal justice system or that they’ll attempt to house as many (or more) inmates with even fewer resources.