Race, Economic Competition, and Increasing Imprisonment Rates

Karen Heimer, University of Iowa
Thomas D. Stucky, University of Iowa
Joseph B. Lang, University of Iowa

The large increases in imprisonment in the United States since the 1970s reflect large increases in the proportion of African American and minority inmates. In this paper, we attempt to develop a theoretical explanation of how competition between whites and minorities in labor markets contribute to changes in patterns of imprisonment. More specifically, we examine the influence on imprisonment rates of contracting of job opportunities for minorities due to shifts in population size and unemployment, as well as changes in the racial composition of occupations and industrial sectors. We also examine how these processes operate within more conservative versus liberal political contexts. We empirically test our arguments using data from the 50 United States from 1976 to 1997 and random-effects models. Based on our findings, we suggest avenues for further developing our theoretical framework and speculate about possible future trends in imprisonment given current economic and political conditions.

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Updated 05/20/2006