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The United States has seen a historic increase in incarceration rates, exceeding that of any industrialized nation, according to a recent study co-authored by Harvard Sociology Professor Bruce Western and University of Washington Associate Professor Becky Pettit.
From 1980 to 2008, the incarceration rate in the U.S. has climbed from 221 to 780 per 100,000 people, with a total of 2.3 million individuals currently imprisoned or jailed, according to the study. The study also highlighted racial imbalances exacerbated by incarceration: more than 35 percent of all African-American high school dropouts between the ages of 20 to 34 have served some form of criminal sentence, but under 13 percent of white high school dropouts in the same age range have been incarcerated.
“The main goal of our research is getting this issue [of incarceration] on the radar screen,” Pettit said.
According to Pettit, changes to both sentencing and prosecution policies have contributed to the rise in incarceration rates. By definition, the current 5.9 percent unemployment rate excludes the 2.3 million who are incarcerated, Pettit said. But 90 percent of the U.S. prison population is composed of men, a majority of whom could otherwise contribute to the workforce.
When asked about policies that should be instituted to address these increasing numbers, Pettit said that states and local governments are currently most interested in the fiscal implications of incarceration, but that there also needs to be a focus on addressing broader social inequalities associated with incarceration.
She cited a solution offered by Nobel Laureate in Economics James J. Heckman, which suggests that the best way to decrease incarceration rates is to ensure that people obtain high quality education in their early years.
Pettit and Western’s study corroborates the importance of education and the close link between incarceration and social inequality, saying that “the prison boom is embedded in the structure of American social inequality.”
“Ameliorating these inequalities will be necessary to set us on a path away from mass incarceration and toward a robust, socially integrative public safety,” the study added.
“We need to acknowledge this issue and consider it as an extremely important concern,” Pettit said.
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