did bill clinton accelerate black mass incarceration? yes, but he did put a bunch of white people in prison to even it out


Pam Oliver has a fascinating post that empirically investigates incarceration trends during Clinton 1 era (1993-2001). It’s an impressive post. Professor Oliver pulls up a lot of data on overall incarceration rates and breaks it down by race. You should read it yourself, but here is my summary, diagrams are from her article:

  • Imprisonment rates, overall, kept on increasing during the entire Clinton 1 presidency.
  • By race, Black imprisonment rates increased till about 2000 and then plateaued. It started at 75/100,000 and then peaked around 200 per 100,000 and then stabilized. There are huge increases, in rates, for Whites, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Asian rates seem to be stable.
  • The story of racial disparity is a bit more complex. Roughly speaking, the Blackness of the prison population peaked around 1995 (see below). Then the Black/White ratio in prisons began to decline.


My interpretation. First, you have to distinguish between between absolute and relative effects. To be blunt, Black mass incarceration in absolute terms unequivocally increased during the Clinton 1 years. Period. Perhaps the only qualifier is that it eventually stabilized, but the Black imprisonment rate never declined or even remotely went back to the levels of the 1980s or early 1990s. Mass incarceration was built in the 1980s and 1990s and it was here to stay.

The real question is why it stabilized. One hypothesis is that it was a policy effect. Perhaps in the late-1990s, there were policy changed that took effect circa 2000. A second hypothesis is that the prison system became saturated and there weren’t any more people to imprison from that population. Professor Oliver’s data are not enough to settle the question.

Second, the real story is in relative rates. Imprisonment became a much more equal system in the 1990s. In other words, prison shifted from being a Black institution to more of an all American institution. My hypothesis is that the drug war machine simply reached its limit in imprisoning Black and expanded by targeted low income white.

In this data, the American prison system appears as a hungry beast, ruthlessly scooping up low SES populations one at a time. After being built in the 1950s and 1960s by liberal reformers, the American justice system now had the power to quickly and swiftly punish people. In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican and Democratic administrations turned this machine on urban blacks and went unstopped until the early 2000s. The machine then turned to poor whites in the 1990s and a similar machine was built to imprison and deport Mexican and Central American migrants.

Francis Fukuyama wrote that we reached the end of history because liberal capitalism won over its socialist and fascist competitors. The sad truth is that the history must continue and the next chapter will be the struggle to liberate the world’s people from predatory prison states.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($2!!!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street

Written by fabiorojas

September 7, 2016 at 12:18 am

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The book you link to is about the federal system, while your graphs are for state prisons.



    September 8, 2016 at 7:08 pm

  2. As my (Pam Oliver’s) post shows, the federal system had a different trend from the state prisons. The state prisons are a bigger share of the total.



    September 9, 2016 at 3:52 am

  3. I spent 9 years working with prisoners of all kinds. The reason certain types go to prison and others don’t is based on one thing and one thing only – crime. You do the crime you pays yore time. Simple. If not then we are looking at a disastrous social policy and criminal intent on the part of the “justice” system. Blame of social conditions, education, etc, statistically has no bearing except to political leaders. High unemployment does matter and that is frequently based on over taxation.



    September 15, 2016 at 9:42 am

  4. ccree: while it is true that the vast majority of people who enter prison have actually committed a crime, it is not true that the vast majority of people who have actually committed a crime end up in prison. As a recent public example, consider Brock Turner, a convicted rapist who received no prison sentence. Differential enforcement of laws, especially of drug laws and other public order offenses, is huge. There is also a huge and legitimate debate about how much “time” you owe for a given crime, and huge variations across place and offender categories in the “time” you are expected to “do” for a given crime. In general, the disparities in sentencing occur more at the “lesser” offenses, and differential patterns of public order policing account for a lot of the difference in prior arrests and prior convictions that feed into these differential sentences. There are definitely “real” differences in rates of committing crimes that are part of the patterns, but there are also definitely real differences in how people are treated net of committing crimes that also feed into incarceration disparities.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 15, 2016 at 4:27 pm

  5. Might this not be an artifact of the mandatory minimum sentencing craze that hit in the early 90’s? Whites who may previously have been given non-prison sentences were now subject to mandatory incarceration, which may be driving the reduction in relative rates. Breaking down per-state and comparing to the enactment of state-level “3-strikes” style laws would shed more light.

    Note: IANYASS (I am Not Yet a Social Scientist)



    September 16, 2016 at 11:37 am

  6. bert: yes, that is the argument that the original post makes. There is a lot more in the OP than Fabio discusses. It wasn’t a “craze” it was incentivized by the federal government, but it did have racially more diffuse effects than the Reagan/Bush drug war. And yes, I have been analyzing this in meticulous detail. There are working papers posted but hidden on my web page that I plan soon to give more publicity to.



    September 16, 2016 at 8:55 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: