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70% of black high-school dropouts born in 1975 have been to prison

Visions of America/UIG via Getty Images

This is a particularly horrifying statistic from America's prison state:


The chart is from the Hamilton Project, and it tracks the cumulative incarceration rate for different birth cohorts. So all the way on the left you see the likelihood of imprisonment for men born between 1945 and 1949. All the way on the right you see it for men born between 1975 and 1979. And that's where the numbers get insane.

An African American male born in 1975 and who didn't finish high school has a nearly 70 percent chance of serving jail time by his mid-thirties. That's 53 percentage points higher than a white male born in the same year who also lacks a high school diploma.

The effect of this on their children is predictably devastating:


An African American child whose father didn't complete high school has a 50 percent chance of seeing her father incarcerated by the time she's 14.  That deprives her of a father, of course, but it also deprives her of whatever economic security she might have had. "In 2007, approximately half of parents in state prisons were the primary provider of financial support for their children," reports the Hamilton Project.

Meanwhile, taxpayers are spending a lot of money to imprison this many people:


It can't be said enough: This isn't normal. The international community looks on America's incarceration practices with horror, in large part because of graphs like this one:


At 710 inmates per 100,000 residents, America's incarceration rate is 340 percent higher than Mexico's, 482 percent higher than the UK, 900 percent higher than Germany's, and 1,400 percent higher than Japan's.

That might make some sense if America was utterly crime ridden. But as my colleague Dara Lind explains:

In general, Americans aren't any more likely to become victims of crime than people in other countries.

Where America appears to distinguish itself is in the length of sentences for property crimes and drug crimes. One study found that sentences in the United States for burglary are about three times longer than sentences in England for the same crime.

The disparity is even bigger for drug cases. A first-time offender convicted of possessing a kilogram of heroin could get 4 months of prison in England. In America, the federal mandatory minimum sentence is 10 years.

The result is a country where almost one out of every 100 people is in jail and more than twice as many people are on parole or probation. It's normal to see these numbers and assume they reflect the crime rate. But as Dara explained, the sharp rise in Americans going to prison does not track a similarly sharp rise in crime:  Screen_shot_2014-04-30_at_3.36.46_pm

Rather, the skyrocketing rate of incarceration reflects a policy decision: we've chosen to send more people who commit crimes to prison — particularly if they're African American — and we've chosen to make their prison terms longer.

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