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Institute for New Economic Thinking, Mass Incarceration Retards Racial Integration, 2021

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Working Papers

Institute for
New Economic Thinking

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Mass Incarceration Retards Racial Integration
Peter Temin*
Working Paper No. 155
April 8, 2021

ABSTRACT
President Nixon replaced President Johnson’s War on Poverty with his War on Drugs in 1971.
This new drug war was expanded by President Reagan and others to create mass incarceration.
The United States currently has a higher percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any other
industrial country. Although Blacks are only 13 percent of the population, they are 40 percent of
the incarcerated. The literatures on the causes and effects of mass incarceration are largely distinct,
and I combine them to show the effects of mass incarceration on racial integration. Racial
prejudice produced mass incarceration, and mass incarceration now retards racial integration.

https://doi.org/10.36687/inetwp155
JEL Codes: J15, H720, K14, N11
Keywords: mass incarceration, War on Drugs, racism, neighborhood effects, Head Start

*

Department of Economics, MIT, and NBER (ptemin@mit.edu). I thank Robert Solow for help with the
underlying model of mass incarceration. This paper was supported by the Institute for New Economic
Thinking. Contact: ptemin@mit.edu.
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Mass Incarceration
Mass incarceration is a major problem of the United States today that is largely invisible.
Prisons are located in rural areas to save money and provide rural jobs, and the effects of mass
incarceration are largely ignored in political and social discussions. How many people know that
one out of three African American men will go to prison at today’s incarceration rates? And
how many children in urban public education are distracted by having a parent or a friend’s
parent in prison? This paper sheds light on this unseen problem by means of an economic model
that implies that we have moved from one equilibrium position to another, from limited
incarceration to mass incarceration (Bonczar, 2003; Johnson, 2009; Temin, 2018.)
David Garland defined mass incarceration as a rate of incarceration markedly above the level of
comparable societies, that is, the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population. In
the United States, this group is young Black males in urban environments. The rate of
incarceration in the United States shown in Figure 1 stayed near one hundred people per 100,000
residents from 1925 to around 1980. The incarceration rate then rose rapidly for the next thirty
years, reaching apparent stability after 2000. The incarceration rate in the European Union,
Canada and Mexico stayed near the American rate before 1980, and the American incarceration
rate now is the highest in the developed world, beating even Russia’s incarceration rate (Raphael
and Stoll, 2013, 5-10; Carson and Anderson, 2016; Garland, 2001).
I present a model of mass incarceration in the next section to show how we went from
imprisonment rates similar to other developed countries to mass incarceration. I use the model to
explain what happened in the history of this shift in the following section. I then survey recent
economic analyses about where we are going today, and I close with the choices we face and the
outlook ahead. I have two points to make in this paper. First, mass incarceration intensified
segregation in the past half century. Second, while slavery helped the antebellum white
economy, mass incarceration now retards economic growth by diverting state government
funding from education to imprisonment (Temin, 2018).
Theory
The ideas in my model initially came from a statistical analysis of New York City: “The racialspatial concentration of incarceration in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods in New York
accrued rapidly in the late 1980s and was sustained through the decade of the 1990s even as
crime rates fell by one half or more. When high incarceration rates are internalized into the
ecology of small, homogeneous neighborhoods, it adversely affects their economic fortunes,
political participation, family life, and normative orientation (Fagan, West and Holland, 2004).”
A noted criminologist, Todd Clear, articulated the implications of these statistical results. He
argued that the growth of mass incarceration disrupted families, social networks and other forms
of social support. The collateral effects of high rates of incarceration contribute to more—not
less—crime. The resulting crime fuels a public call for ever-tougher responses to crime that
generates new supplies of penal subjects.
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As Clear said: “Imprisonment in America is concentrated among young, poor—dominantly
minority—men and (to a lesser extent) women who come from impoverished communities. The
way these young people cycle through our system of prisons and jails, then back into the
community, leaves considerable collateral damage in its wake. Families are disrupted, social
networks and other forms of social support are weakened, health is endangered, labor markets
are thinned, and—more important than anything else—children are put at risk of the depleted
human and social capital that promotes delinquency. After a certain point, the collateral effects
of these high rates of incarceration seem to contribute to more crime in these places. Crime fuels
a public call for ever-tougher responses to crime. The increasing way in which the face of
criminality is the face of person of color contributes to an unarticulated public sense that race and
crime are closely linked. The politics of race and justice coexist malignantly, sustaining an evergrowing policy base that guarantees new supplies of penal subjects in a self-sustaining and selfjustifying manner (Clear, 2007, 175).”
Clear’s analysis implies that the responsiveness of crime to incarceration is not linear. If we
graph crime, “c,” as a function of incarceration, “i,” it will not be a straight line. Starting from
little incarceration, the effect of increasing “i” will be a negative-sloping line. Incarceration
decreases crime. But Clear argued that the line was not linear. As incarceration increases, the
slope of this line is reduced and then replaced by an upward-sloping line as more people serve
time in prisons. Incarceration increases crime when incarceration is high. The left-hand side of
Figure 2 shows what this looks like, a curving line looking like a broad “U.”
At this stage, the relationship between crime and incarceration appears to be quadratic. But this
cannot be the whole story as normal incarceration turns into mass incarceration because the
people who are most likely to commit crimes are more likely be in prison when more young men
are incarcerated. Clear noted this perverse result and concluded that crime must decline again
when massive numbers of people are incarcerated. In other words, the relationship is cubic, not
quadratic. As shown in Figure 2, the upward sloping line of the “U” slopes downward again.
The result is a curve containing a “U” followed by an upside-down “U.”
Since the reverse relationship, the responsiveness of incarceration to crime, is the result of
governmental policy, it can be represented as linear in crime. The two curves appear in Figure 2,
where the function for incarceration crosses the line for crime only once. As indicated by
arrows, it is a stable equilibrium. (The arrows come from the functions underlying the two lines
in Figure 2.) The equilibrium describes the stability of American imprisonment before 1970
shown in Figure 1. And all other advanced economies have stayed in such an equilibrium.
A cubic equation can have multiple equilibria when combined with a linear relation. If
government policy reduces the slope of the linear relation, that is, if incarceration becomes more
responsive to factors other than crime, the two curves can cross again, as shown in Figure 3. If
Blacks are incarcerated for being Black, as opposed to being imprisoned for committing a crime,
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then the flatter linear relations in Figure 3 are more accurate than the single linear relation in
Figure 2. As you might expect, the presence of multiple equilibria is dependent on the nature of
governmental policy (Temin, 2018).
History
American society was in turmoil in the late 1960s. There were many high-profile assassinations
of prominent people: John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy
in 1968. And there were race riots in many cities around the country: Harlem in 1964, Watts and
Chicago in 1965 and Newark, Detroit and many other cities in 1967. Crime suddenly had risen
all over. People were scared, and President Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission
on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, in 1967 to help understand what was
going on (Temin, 2021).
The Kerner Commission’s Report concluded pithily: “What white Americans have never fully
understood—but which the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in
the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society
condones it.” The report concluded that policies should be adopted to move toward a single
integrated society, but it was rushed into publication for political reasons and soon was overcome
by concern over the Vietnam War (Kerner Commission, 1968, Chapter 16, Summary).
Instead of reversing this divisive trend, public policies intensified it by seeking additional
imprisonment and longer incarceration for African Americans. This blindness was the origin of
our current dilemma. Blacks rioted in the late 1960s in opposition to the growing Vietnam War
and in frustration at the slow-moving gains they expected from the Civil Rights Movement.
White flight stranded Blacks who moved north into Black center cities where social services
were inadequate. The growth of the Drug War segregated Blacks instead of integrating them
(Boustan, 2007).
The riots passed into history, but the urge to incarcerate led to mass incarceration in a process
described by John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, in 1994: “The Nixon
campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and
black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either
against the [Vietnam] war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with
marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those
communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify
them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of
course, we did (Baum, 2016).”
H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s Chief of Staff, confirmed Nixon’s attitude in his diaries. He described
President Nixon views as follows: "P [Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the
whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not
appearing to. Pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they
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are the only race of which this is true. Says Africa is hopeless. The worst there is Liberia, which
we built (Haldeman, 1994; Associated Press, 1994)."
Nixon’s racism found its outlet in severe penalties for Blacks and hippies, although the penalties
were much harsher for Blacks. Federal laws were expanded in state laws that ranged from threestrike laws to harsh penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In Figure 3,
government policy shifted from i1 to i2.
The crack epidemic of the 1980s led to policy changes that intensified the movements of the
1970s. The changes originated in an attempt to reform the judicial process to lower prison terms,
promote consistency among courts and encourage alternative sanctions to prison. By the time
various bills were combined and transformed into the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, however,
the aim had shifted to become a part of Nixon’s War on Drugs and the national toughness on
crime. It was followed by a series of laws that translated the new, tough approach into detailed
sentencing guidelines (Lynch, 2016, Chapter 2).
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated a minimum sentence of five years without parole
for possession of five grams of crack cocaine, while it mandated the same only for possession of
500 grams of powder cocaine. This 100:1 disparity clearly criminalized Black people because
they favored crack cocaine far more than whites. Nixon’s War on Drugs became a New Jim
Crow, depriving African Americans of their civil rights and economic freedom. The result was
that one out of three Black men could expect to spend time in prison by 2000. The new Jim
Crow disrupted Black communities all across the country. Almost all Black families had a
member in prison or knew of a friend in prison. The racial disparity between whites and Blacks
under the new rules can be seen in the contrast of between this estimate and the estimated one of
seventeen white men who could expect incarceration. Very few white people know imprisoned
people. This act shifted the incarceration line in Figure 3 from i2 to i3 (Alexander, 2010;
Bonczar, 2003; Lynch, 2016, 26).
Congress determined the shape of another crime bill a decade later. President Clinton proposed
to allay fears of the 1980s crime wave with a bill that would put 100,000 more police on the
streets and expand prisons. These punitive measures were offset by a ban on assault weapons
and a variety of social programs aimed at crime prevention and social intervention. But the
social programs were stripped from the bill, and Clinton signed the resulting bill containing only
the punitive parts (Wheelock and Hartmann, 2007; Raphael and Stoll, 2013).
These political decisions increased the responsiveness of incarceration to crime, and the decline
in the slope of the incarceration rate caused it to intersect the crime rate curve at several places.
The curve shifted from “i1” to “i2” initially as shown in Figure 3, preserving a single crossing of
the curves. But as increasingly strong laws mandated Blacks to be more vulnerable, the curve
moved from “i2” to “i3,” leading to three crossings. Only two of these crossings are stable,

5

presenting the United States with a choice of few prisoners or mass incarceration. As shown in
Figure 1, incarceration rose as criminal justice changed.
Glenn Loury expressed this transition in words: “Imprisonment rates have continued to rise
while crime rates have fallen because we have become progressively more punitive; not because
crime has continued to explode (it hasn’t), not because we made a smart choice, but because we
have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment (Loury, 2008, 7)”.
Elizbeth Hinton noted that Johnson’s War on Poverty was accompanied by his War on Crime.
The War on Drugs became President Reagan’s expansion of policing and incarceration in
response to the crack epidemic. In her words, “The extension of military power into domestic
law enforcement primarily functioned to seal the United States from ‘undesirable influences’
from the rest of the Western Hemisphere. … With the militaristic turn in domestic law
enforcement already underway and patrol at the nation’s border established, the administration
led Congress in renewing the War on Drugs (Hinton, 2016, 311-12).”
The laws shifted the judicial process from courtrooms to offices where prosecutors put pressure
on accused people to plea-bargain. The threat of harsh minimum sentences gives prosecutors the
option of reducing the charge to a lesser one if the accused is reluctant to languish in jail—if he
or she is unable to make bail and face the possibility of long years in prison. The shift of power
was eased by the pattern of financing; public prosecutors are paid by localities, while the costs of
prisons are borne by states. The number of inmates grew primarily from the increase in
convictions rather than the length of sentences. “Few people in the criminal justice system are as
powerful, or as central to prison growth, as the prosecutor.” (Stuntz, 2011, 286; Pfaff, 2017, 127)
The increasing power of public prosecutors contributed also to the falling slope of the
incarceration rate. The number of line prosecutors that try cases roughly doubled between 1970
and 2007, while the number of public defenders did not rise. The result was increasing power of
public prosecutors who used their power to seek plea bargains; jurisprudence moved from the
courtroom to the offices of public prosecutors. Prosecutors used their power to increase the
sensitivity of incarceration to the crime rate, dramatically reducing the slope of the incarceration
rate (Pfaff, 2017, 129).
There now are three places where the two curves intersect. They all represent equilibria, but the
middle crossing is unstable. One is to the left with less incarceration, and the other is to the right
with mass incarceration. But the dynamics of politics pushed for more incarceration,
representing the urge to incriminate more and more. Incarceration increased until it came to rest
at a new stable equilibrium. The new equilibrium can be seen in the stability of the incarceration
rate for the past few years. There was no mention of any program to move from this position in
the presidential campaigns of 2016 and 2020. Although we do not yet have as many years of
observations like those that showed the stability of the equilibrium before 1970, this model
predicts that we will stay at the new equilibrium for the foreseeable future (Temin, 2018).

6

The disparity in the minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine were reduced from 100:1
to 28:1 in 2010, when the illegal possession of crack cocaine was increased to 28 grams (1
ounce) by the Fair Sentencing Act of that year. Penalties for simple possession of crack cocaine
also were reduced. The larger disparity had continued for almost half a century, supported by the
backlash from the Civil Rights Movement, Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and the belief that Black
prisoners were inherently criminal—not ordinary people who had done criminal things. But
after even forty years, the difference between crack and powder cocaine were not eliminated
(Raphael and Stoll, 2013, 115-20).
A First Step Act was signed in early 2019 that allowed drug offenders in federal prisons to be
freed early. It freed a few thousand prisoners from federal prisons that contain only one-tenth of
the millions of prisoners in state and federal prisons. Ninety percent of the freed prisoners were
Black. Even though this bill had support from both the ACLU and the Koch brothers, there was
no second step (Fandos, 2018; Editorial Board, 2019).
Mass incarceration has mushroomed to the point where we look more like the kleptocracies of
Eastern Europe and the Middle East than the democracies of Western Europe. We need to focus
on ways to remove the equilibrium at mass incarceration. The model indicates that it will be
hard to dislodge ourselves from the new equilibrium of mass incarceration.
Evidence
The effect of these laws and convictions can be seen in Figure 4, which shows the incarceration
rate for Blacks and whites with different incomes at a single date in 2010. The upper line for
Black incarceration rates is above the rate for whites for all incomes, but much further above for
poor families. This clear difference shows that race was dominant, even though income also was
important in the aftermath of growth of a well-educated Black elite in the Civil Rights
Movement. College educated Black men are far safer from drug convictions than working-class
Black men, although still more likely to be incarcerated than white men (Chetty and Hendren,
2020a, b).
The American criminal justice system now holds almost 2.3 million people in 3 thousand local
jails, 2 thousand state prisons, 200 juvenile correction facilities and 100 federal prisons. Blacks
are three times as likely to be sent to prison as whites as 40 percent of prisoners are Black while
Blacks are only 13 percent of the population. In addition, three quarters of jail prisoners have
not been convicted of any crime; they are poor and often Black victims of our monetary bail
system. That is why the line for Blacks in Figure 4 slopes down as family income increases.
The war on drugs is the center of mass incarceration, and nonviolent drug convictions dominate
federal convictions. However, most state prisoners are convicted of other offenses, and an
additional 3.6 people are on probation (Sawyer and Wagner, 2020).
The evolution of mass incarceration can be seen in Table 1, which shows the cumulative risk of
imprisonment of whites and Blacks of different education levels up to 1979 and 1999. Instead of
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a snapshot at one time, Table 1 shows the risk of risk of Black and white cohorts of different
education, which is highly correlated with the household income shown in Figure 4. The table
shows that white men’s risk of going to prison remained low for all groups, although it increased
for high school dropouts from 4 percent to 11 percent in these 20 years. In contrast to this rough
stability, the risk for Black high school dropouts multiplied more than three times from 17
percent to 59 percent. The risk for Black high school graduates increased from 7 percent to 18
percent. And the risk for Black men with some college fell slightly. Table 1 shows that we fit
Garland’s definition of mass incarceration, massively incriminating poor and uneducated Black
youths, and it indicates how the estimate of one in three Black men goes to jail is concentrated
among high school dropouts.
The increase in prison inmates was not the result of an increase in crime. Crimes of young men
whose imprisonment rose actually fell in the late 1980s and 1990s. The crime rates for drug
dealing, harming property and stealing all fell. Instead, the rise in incarceration resulted from the
political history just recounted (Western 2006, chapter 2).
The rise of mass incarceration affected Black families and communities. A study of the
education of families where one-fifth of fathers were incarcerated and one-third of fathers who
lacked a high-school degree were incarcerated revealed that children of incarcerated fathers had
significantly larger behavior problems at all stages of childhood. The largest effects came when
fathers were incarcerated during early childhood and adolescent years. These children were
stigmatized at an early age as Blacks rather than as children of incarcerated fathers—for few
children could even pronounce “incarcerated” (Johnson, 2009).
Another study spelled out the varied ways in which mass incarceration affects the lives of poorly
educated Blacks. Incarcerated poor men find it hard to find good jobs, and their annual incomes
are about one-third lower than non-convicts with similar education. Incarceration also inhibits
the formation of stable two-parent families, which pool resources, socialize and supervise
children, and provide networks of mutual aid. Mass incarceration diminishes the ability of
incarcerated men from enjoying these social resources. The study concluded, “First, that mass
imprisonment has significantly sealed the social immobility of poor blacks. Second, if we view
the effects of the prison boom in the context of its causes, mass imprisonment has significantly
subtracted from the gains of African American citizenship hard won by the civil rights
movement (Western 2006, 163, 191).”
These findings have been confirmed by research on income differentials between Blacks and
white men. In the heart of the Great Recession, almost 40 percent of prime-age Black men at the
bottom of the income distribution where mass incarceration takes its toll were unemployed,
compared with less than 20 percent of white men. Blacks at the top of their income distribution
found that their incomes reduced the Black-white income gap, largely through greater college
employment (Bayer and Charles, 2018; Western, 2018; Temin, 2021).

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Blacks and Latinos suffered the sharpest fall in wealth in the 2008 financial crisis and the Great
Recession. The median wealth of white households fell from $135,000 to $113,000 between
2005 and 2009, while the median wealth of Black households fell from $12,000 to $6,000 and
Latino households’ wealth fell from $18,000 to $6,000. White households’ wealth fell less than
20 percent. Black households’ wealth fell by half, and Latino wealth, by two-thirds. As of 2018,
Blacks were two and half times more likely to be in poverty as whites (Pew Research, 2011, 13;
EPI, 2020).
As mass incarceration grew, it put pressure on state governments. About ninety percent of
prisoners are in state prisons. And the fiscal weight of these prisoners put pressure on state
budgets which reduced education expenditures. States universities lost funds whenever there
was a fiscal crisis, and primary and secondary schools lost funds more smoothly. Mass
incarceration thus lowered economic growth in two ways. Prisoners were not educated while in
prison, although we do hear of occasional prison schools. More importantly, the funds for the
schooling of all the other children has been reduced. Prisons were being closed as 2021 started,
but not to save prisoners; the prisons were being closed to protect the guards from COVID-19
(Mitchell and Leachman, 2014; Temin, 2017 (Derr, et al., 2021).
The fate of many Black boys today is shown by a study that followed a sample of prisoners in
Boston, MA, for a year after they were released from prison. Two-thirds of the people in this
sample had only poverty incomes, and half made less than $6,000, which researchers
conceptualize as deep poverty. These felons are not included in prison or poverty data as they
are too poor and scattered to be in a general sample. It is worth quoting the conclusions on race:
“Africans and Latinos make up less than one-quarter of the city’s population but were about 75
percent of the formerly incarcerated sample of the reentry study. The white respondents we
interviewed were mostly in their forties or older, were high school graduates, and had histories of
addiction, mental illness, and homelessness. The black and Latino respondents were more often
in their twenties and more likely to be high school dropouts with little work history. They
experienced more unemployment, and their incomes were only half the incomes of whites after
incarceration. Because kin connections were stronger among black and brown respondents
compared to whites, Black and brown families were drawn into the orbit of the prison through
visits, phone calls, canteen payments, and the provision of housing after release. In short, the
new racial inequality was visible in Boston through the association between the incarceration of
young black men and the deep economic disadvantage woven into the structure of their
economic opportunities (Western, 2018, 176).”
We are in a New Jim Crow period, echoing the Jim Crow laws of the first Gilded Age that lasted
to the Second World War. Michelle Alexander made this parallel over a decade ago, and further
research has confirmed her analogy. The Republican party has been intent on restricting Blacks
from voting. Black people, are having trouble voting now as they have had in the past. The
barriers come from bad laws as in the past and also from more modern hardships as well. Florida
9

voters passed a popular constitutional amendment granting ex-felons the vote by a two-to-one
margin. The Supreme Court then upheld the Florida Republican legislative institution of debt
repayments—a new kind of poll tax—for voting by ex-felons who had been granted voting
rights. A new Jim Crow indeed (Alexander, 2010; Baker, M., 2020; Liptak, 2020; Wines, 2020).
Choices
The model shows that policies to reduce the rate of incarceration must pass laws that reduce the
rate at which crime changes incarceration. In Figure 3, the function for government policy needs
to shift only from “i3” to “i2” to destroy the mass incarceration equilibrium. We do not need to
recapture “i1,” which shows government policy before the War on Drugs, but only to get to “i2.”
Then the model predicts we will approach the incarceration levels of similar countries over time.
A start was made in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, but more legislative progress does not look
likely any time soon. Democratic administrations were only slightly better than Republican ones
in the development of mass incarceration as described in the history recounted above and
confirmed by statistical analysis. Very few states were willing to let prisoners go for their safety
after prisons were shown to be coronavirus hotspots. And police hostility to Blacks appears to be
the result of the urban riots of the 1960s that stimulated Nixon to form his War on Drugs
(Western, 2006, 72; Gertner, 2020; Tully, 2020; Barker, Keller and Eder, 2020).
An alternative approach is to reduce the incentives for public prosecutors to cut plea deals that
send accused people to prison. We could increase funds for public defenders to link the
unopposed actions of prosecutors, and we could use monetary incentives to induce prosecutors to
focus more on serious defendants. “It will not be easy. Reform will require prodigious and
sustained effort, a both the grassroots and political elite levels (Hinton, 2018; Pfaff, 2017, 205).”
Education appears to be the most promising way for African Americans to avoid the racism that
they normally face. Like voting, education is handled at the state level, and progress will be
uneven. We had a Black president and now have a Black vice-president, but poor Black boys
still face a life of poverty and imprisonment. We must push for integrated schools and special
care for minority students to allow future generations to escape from the ills of mass
incarceration. Stampp repeated Myrdal’s conclusion that Blacks are very diverse. And we now
have both rich and poor Blacks, who typically are educated and school dropouts as well (Stampp.
1941).
Teachers have been low paid for close to half a century. When wages began to stagnate around
the time that the rate of incarceration began to rise, teachers’ wages also stopped rising with the
national economy. Teachers, were doubly hit as they mostly were women who saw their
opportunities for high-paying jobs open up. The result shifted teaching from a well-paid job to a
low paid job that could be represented by a movement from one equilibrium to another, as in the

10

model discussed here. The result has been a lower quality of teachers in this new teacher market
(Temin, 2002).
The problems created by this history appear at all levels of education today. Head Start began in
1965 as part of the Civil Rights Movement. The need for early education grew out of this history
because Black parents typically had little education to pass on to their children. As many studies
have shown, an absence of books at home places beginning students at a sharp disadvantage at
school. Head start helped beginning grade scholars, but the effects initially appeared to
disappear over the next few years.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist, wrote, “The accident of birth is a principal
source of inequality in America today.” He drew three lessons for social policy from this
observation. Life today depends on cognitive skills, these skills develop in early childhood, and
early education can improve the chances of children of disadvantaged parents. We need to have
programs like Head Start to equalize the opportunities for all American children (Heckman,
2013).
Head Start’s effects wear off if not supported by subsequent education. And Black children now
frequently are denied good education, as shown by a student claiming “Multiplication is for
white people.” We need more integrated schools to dispel such defeatism. Rucker Johnson
showed that Black achievements in integrated schools are not made at the expense of white
learning, which is unaffected. And David Kirp told how community colleges are using personal
interventions to help discouraged students to graduate. But even progressive states like
Massachusetts have racially separated schools (Heckman, 2013; Johnson, 2019; Kirp, 2019;
Delpit, 2012; Scharfenberg, 2020).
Head Start does not guarantee college admission. Head Start is the beginning of a long process
that needs personal attention along the way. With generations of relatives who have been denied
education, children often think they are unable to learn. When a teacher asked a young boy to go
to the board to work out a math problem, he replied that he was mentally retarded and not
supposed to be in regular school. The teacher responded that someone else’s opinion did not
have to become his reality. This encouragement freed the student to progress in school and
graduate in due time (Delpit, 2012, 79; Temin, 2017).
Black students need stimulus and encouragement. The student needs to be shaken out of his
customary reluctance to think by supportive teachers who lead him or her into new areas. The
problem created by current political advocates of arming teachers to combat school shootings is
that armed teachers represent authority and move students into command behavior where they
cannot think for themselves. Only a friendly teacher can stimulate a student into independent
thought without scaring him or her to death.

11

The results of all this history are sharpest in college education. Almost half of undergraduates
leave college before graduation. Graduates are burdened by student debt. Eighty percent of
Black students graduate with college debt, and they have on average seventy percent larger debt
than white students. Debt is particularly prevalent in for-profit colleges that attract students by
their ease in getting government Pell grants and providing for daily costs of studying.
As in earlier education, attention by teachers is all important. An experiment at the University of
Texas put low scoring SAT students into smaller sections of some classes with more peer tutors
and faculty advisors. The proportion of students graduating rose from 50 to 70 percent, and poor
and minority students made the biggest gains. But getting faculty to help poor and minority
students is hard as most professors want to publish more than they want to encourage poor Black
and brown students. Professors normally value their own advancement above the advancement
of their students (Kirp, 2019, Chap. 5; Tough, 2019, Chap. 6; Zimmerman, 2020).
These two proposals, easing criminal punishment and encouraging Black education are
complementary. They should be pursued at the same time. The data show that mass
incarceration is devastating for poor Black boys; better education would help them avoid their
entry into the imprisoned world. And schools and prisons are fighting for the same state funds.
Reducing prison costs would free up funds for more education for urban Black boys. This paper
argues for an integrated program to help poor Black boys: fewer convictions and more
educational degrees are complements. We need to pursue an integrated anti-racist program.
Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s District Attorney, is a pioneer for judicial reform at the local level
of enforcement, a promising path that will take a long time to become national even if it is taken
up by other district attorneys, as it has started to be in New York, New Jersey and Boston.
Krasner instructed his 300 Assistant District Attorneys to start their plea bargaining at the lower
end of mandatory sentencing guidelines, to decline charges for marijuana possession independent
of its weight, to decline charges for sex workers who have two or fewer prior convictions, and to
lower retail theft under $500 to the lowest possible misdemeanor. It has taken a generation to get
into mass incarceration; it may take as long to get out of it (Ewing, 2018; Fulop and Hudnut,
2018; Mueller, 2018).
The growth of private prisons also makes judicial reform harder by adding another interested
group to the political process. The number of people housed in private prisons has increased by
almost half since 2000 while the total number of prisoners rose only ten percent; private prisons
now house over eight percent of all US prisoners. There are only three large companies
operating these prisons, and they give generously to Republican candidates. The Obama
administration started to phase out private prisons; the Trump administration reversed this
policy. Wardens receive incentives for staying within budgets, but they are not penalized when
there is violence or even if prisoners die. The growth of private prisons adds to the difficulty of
escaping from the mass incarceration equilibrium (Williams and Oppel, 2018).
12

Conclusions
Mass incarceration reduces the educational success of children of inmates and family formation
by ex-felons when they are released. The effects of mass incarceration distinguish members of
the Black urban community from white suburban communities. They lead whites to steer clear of
Blacks, and increase segregated living. And, as Nixon intended, urban Blacks are stigmatized.
These results show the effect of the discrimination against poor Black boys as the second Gilded
Age continues. What would it cost to fix or even ameliorate these conditions? Do not ask the
rich people of the Gilded Age. Their only interest is in low taxes, and successive Republican
administrations since 1960 reduced taxes for the Forbes 400 wealthiest people, while poor
Blacks suffered under their radar. That is why an integrated program—reduce prison time and
expand education time—is most promising. Transfer money from prisons to schools instead of
seeking to get more taxes.
American education is in bad shape due to inadequate funding for a generation. Badly-paid
teachers do their best, but they need to be supported with higher pay, newer buildings, better
settings for students to learn. Incarcerated Blacks however attracted more funds as prisons
expanded to accommodate mass incarceration. A transfer of state funds from prisons to schools
would be a win-win combination. It also would help economic growth to have more educated
people who could get jobs in our new digital economy and even discover new ways to improve
it. This switch is needed even more after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who neglected the
needs of students in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates, retired. It will take a lot of
resources to counter her attempts to kill public education (Editorial Board, 2021).
This Gilded Age is like the last Gilded Age in its efforts to keep African Americans out of the
mainstream economy. The two ages have kept Black Americans poor for over a century. A few
have joined the mainstream as a result of educational achievements, but the number remains
small. Blacks without much education are stigmatized as convicts and deprived of family life as
ex-convicts. Their children do badly in school and may well reproduce their fathers’
experiences. The United States would be better off if the very rich did not exploit the racism of
many whites to maintain their political power (Mitchell and Leachman, 2014).
I end on a moral note. Massachusetts recently freed a man jailed for nearly 30 years on a
wrongful conviction. Attorneys on both sides agreed he was innocent, but it took a Supreme
Court justice to free the prisoner, helped by the coronavirus epidemic. The rapper will be under
house arrest until a new trial can take place, as the initial trial is now considered wrongful. The
Boston District Attorney said that she would drop the case if a new trial were called (Fox, 2020).
Glenn Loury invoked John Rawls’ theory of social justice to consider such a miscarriage of
justice. Rawls’ theory was that social justice should be considered behind a veil of ignorance of
who we are, and that inequality should be justified only if it helps the most disadvantaged
13

members of society. A man wrongly imprisoned for almost 30 years is severely disadvantaged,
and each of us could have been born that man, imprisoned for his adult life, as Heckman said.
Mass incarceration that gives rise to this kind of wrongful imprisonment is immoral (Rawls,
1971; Loury, 2008).
Mass incarceration gives rise to wrongful imprisonment of many innocent people, not only the
man just described. Massachusetts based its drug convictions during the first decade of the
2000s on two drug labs, one in Boston and one in western Massachusetts. These labs were
underfunded and without much supervision. The principal testers, young white women named
Dookhan and Farak, became addicted to the drugs they supposedly were verifying and failed
miserably to test each sample accurately. They were sentenced to 1.5- and 2-years confinement
after their addiction became known (Carr, 2020).
After many requests and suits by defense attorneys, state prosecutors eventually turned over their
records to the defense. New attorney generals then dropped cases and freed tens of thousands of
drug prisoners. Further suits may well result in hundreds of thousands of prisoners being
declared innocent of drug offenses and freed. Almost all of these wrongful convictions were for
drug possession only.
Newspaper stories did not dwell on the effects of imprisonment on imprisoned individuals,
although a Netflix series about the drug scandal identified and described one or two of them.
Western’s research described above reveals the great harm done by incarceration. There is no
metric for immorality. The moral argument about one prisoner extends to many, many others as
well. The criminal justice system in the progressive state of Massachusetts is highly corrupt and
immoral. And, as Judge Rakoff argues, the problem is national (Arnett and Mulvihill, 2021;
Mulvihill and Arnett, 2021; Rakoff, 2021).

14

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15

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18

Table 1
Cumulative Risks of Imprisonment by 1979 and 1999
Birthdates

HS

HS

HS or

HS or

Some

Some

Dropouts

Dropouts

GED

GED

College

College

White

Black

White

Black

White

Black

1945-49

4

17

1

7

1

6

1965-69

11

59

4

18

1

5

Source: Western, 2006, 27, Figure 1.4.

19

Figure 1
Incarceration rate, 1925-2009

600
0
0
0

0

0

~

Q)

0..
Cl)
~

500
400
300 ,

c::

200

·-

100

Q)

0

Cl)

~

p..

0

~~~~~~~@~~~~~~~~~~

~ . ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Year

Source: Authors' compilation based on Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistics
(various years).

Source: Raphael and Stoll, 2013, p. 5.

20

Figure 2
Curves showing the initial stable equilibrium

C

.

C

.....J

• i

Figure 3
Curves showing two stable equilibria

i2

C

L ____ _

21

-

i

Figure 4
Incarceration rates by income and race, 2010

• White
• Black

..•..

0

0
N

ID

•

......

... Oiff. at p=25: -8.2

.......

-

.......
............

•

0

20

60

40

Parent Househo ld Income Rank

Source: Chetty, 2018a.

22

80

100

 

 

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