The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Since the mid-1970s the U.S. prison population has quadrupled, reflecting one of the largest policy experiments of the twentieth century. Researchers and policymakers are just beginning to understand the effect that this dramatic expansion has had on U.S. society. Because African Americans and Hispanics are incarcerated at a higher rate than whites, it is reasonable to assume that rising imprisonment has contributed to existing racial inequalities in U.S. society. Earlier work has generally corroborated this assumption, concluding that imprisonment has in fact disproportionately disadvantaged nonwhite ex-inmates, their families, and their communities. For one, the incarceration rate for blacks is over six times that of whites, and incarceration has become an increasingly common fact of life, especially for black males with low levels of education. Disproportionate incarceration has been identified as a factor in racial variation in earnings, and in certain aspects of health. Additionally, felon disenfranchisement, or the restriction of voting rights among ex-offenders, disproportionately affects blacks, which has had major implications for state and federal elections. Finally, although fathers account for over 90 percent of all incarcerated parents, large racial discrepancies in incarceration rates mean that black children are actually more likely to have an incarcerated mother than white children are to have an incarcerated father. (Author abstract)
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