Young male imprisonment rates still falling in 2022, and the Sentencing Project get it wrong again

The 2022 prisoners report showed that young male imprisonment rates are still heading toward zero. The imprisonment rate for men ages 18-19 fell 89% from 2001-2022, with Black men recording the steepest decline. In this age group, the 2022 Black male imprisonment rate was just slightly higher than the 2001 White male imprisonment rate.

The imprisonment rate for men ages 20-24 fell 73% from 2001-2022. In this age group, the Black male imprisonment rate fell 77% from 2001-2022.

The imprisonment rate for men ages 25-29 fell 54% from 2001-2022. In this age group, the Black male imprisonment rate fell 67% from 2001-2022. 

In 2015, Glenn Kessler fact-checked the claim that a Black male “born today” had a 1 in 3  risk of going to prison in his lifetime. Kessler traced that claim to a 2013 Sentencing Project report that cited a 2003 analysis by Bonczar. But that 2003 analysis stated that its lifetime risk estimates assumed that “age-specific rates of first incarceration remain at 2001 levels”.  Kessler noted that the imprisonment rate for all black males fell 20% from 2001 through 2013, suggesting that a “1 in 3” lifetime risk might be too high in 2015. 

Unfortunately, The Sentencing Project continued to misrepresent the findings reported by Bonczar, claiming Black males “born in 2001” had a 1 in 3 lifetime risk of going to prison. As I explained in 2022, Bonczar estimated the risk that would apply to Black males born in 2001 if age-specific first imprisonment rates remained at 2001 levels. But Prisoner data showed massive imprisonment rate declines after 2001 for Black men under the age of 30, the ages that Bonczar found to be most associated with first imprisonments.

The Sentencing Project now has a four-part “One in Five” series claiming that the lifetime risk of imprisonment for Black men “has fallen from a staggering one in three for those born in 1981 to a still troubling one in five for Black men born in 2001.” They cite a 2023 study by Robey to support their new “One in Five” claim, but they are not accurately describing the Robey study findings and assumptions.  

The Robey study concluded that “less than 1 in 5 Black men born in 2001 will be imprisoned.” The authors did find that the risk was 1 in 5 if one assumes that first imprisonment rates by age, race and gender are unchanged after 2019, but they noted that imprisonment rate declines in 2020 and 2021 cast doubt on that assumption. They also acknowledged that the pandemic could partly explain declines in 2020 and 2021. But the 2022 prisoner data shows the decline continuing.

Anyone concerned about mass incarceration should read the Robey study. The assumption that first imprisonment rates by age, race and gender would be unchanged after 2019 was a reasonable analytical methodology, but the authors made it clear that Black males born in 2001 are “likely to have lower incarceration risks as they age than the older cohorts”. That prediction is supported by 2019-2022 prisoner data: In the three years from 2019 through 2022, the Black male imprisonment rate fell 53% for ages 18-19, 34% for ages 20-24, and 20% for ages 25-29. 

Another important reason to expect ongoing declines in lifetime imprisonment risk is the fact that juvenile residential placement commitment rates (court ordered commitments per 100,000 juveniles) have been falling since 1997. The Black juvenile commitment rate fell 85% from 1997-2021, and the 2021 Black juvenile commitment rate was 31% lower than the White juvenile rate in 2001 (discussed here). 

The risk of being imprisoned as an adult is extremely low for juveniles who have never been sentenced to residential placement or probation. From 1997-2021, the number of juveniles sentenced to probation fell 76% and the number sentenced to residential placement fell 82%.

The steep declines in juvenile residential placement and probation are entirely explained by declines in juvenile arrests (here). From 1994-2020, juvenile property crime arrest rates fell 91% and violent crime arrest rates fell 80%. 

The declines in young male imprisonment rates are also entirely explained by declines in young adult arrest rates (here). From 1994-2020, the violent crime arrest rate fell 67% for ages 18-20 and fell 54% for ages 21-24. From 1988-2000, the property crime arrest rate fell 82% for ages 18-20 and fell 73% for ages 21-24.

It is ironic that the “One in Five” report bemoans “negative cultural stereotypes of Black people, including stereotypes of criminality”. The Sentencing Project has unintentionally promoted that kind of racial bias with their “1 in 3” claims and their “One in Five” report. When most people are told that one in five young Black men will go to prison during their life what they hear is that one in five Black males will be criminals. The Sentencing Project and other criminal justice reform advocates need to trumpet the massive declines in young Black male arrest and incarceration rates if they want to dispel negative stereotypes of young Black men.

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