Six Decades of Felonies in America

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A new quantitative study of felony populations between 1948 and 2010 represents the first attempt to gain a comprehensive view of states-level criminal punishment in the United States, across both demographic and geographic lines.

The authors of this study, issued by the Population Association of America, stipulate that exact data is hard to come by. States have different reporting systems, racial categorizations have changed over time, and multiple other factors affect estimates– such as recidivism, mobility, deportation, and death. Therefore, the authors say, the figures they present “are estimates based on models rather than a census-like enumeration of these populations.”

The study shows that while incarceration growth began to level off somewhat around 2000, and dropped between 2008 and 2010, the number of adults with felony records kept rising–from under 2 million in 1948, to around 19 million in 2010.

This is a critical figure to watch, especially as criminal justice reform targets mass incarceration, because “many of the collateral consequences of punishment—most notably for the labor market, housing, and access to public supports—flow not from incarceration experiences but from the application of a widely known and publicly disseminated felony label.”

Race and Region

“Nationwide, approximately 8% of all adults had a felony conviction as of 2010, but approximately 23% of African American adults shared the same distinction,” the authors found.

“A staggering 33% of African American adult males had a felony conviction by 2010. Depending on the state, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 3 African American adults are confronting the daily reality of limited citizenship rights, diminished job prospects, and stigmatization.

“Communities and families in which people with prison experience and felony records live are also taxed by the material and social consequences of criminal punishment.”

The percentage of adults currently in prison or on parole in the U.S. more than tripled between 1980 and 2010, from .94% to 3.11%. Among African American adults, that percentage rose from 3.04% to 9.64%.

Looking at 2010 alone, the percentage of all adults in prison in all states except for Alaska and Louisiana was less than 1%. However, when filtering this data by race, the authors found that African American adults were incarcerated at rates of between 2.5% and 5% in 19 states; in Vermont, which has a low baseline population of African Americans, the incarceration rate was 8%.

The total percentage of current adult felons in 2010 was between 1% and 2.5% in all but 17 states. Filtered again for race, that map changes dramatically: 20 states had an adult African American felon population of between 5% and 8%, and in two states, that number was over 8%.

In conclusion, the authors reiterate the need to focus studies on felony records, saying that “although incarceration levels are stabilizing or decreasing, the broader population of those with felony records will likely continue to grow as states turn to community supervision as an alternative to incarceration.”

This summary was prepared by Victoria Mckenzie, deputy editor of The Crime Report. We welcome readers’ comments.

The Growth, Scope, and Spacial Distribution of People With Felony Records in the United States, 1948-2010 is published in the October 2017 issue of Demography. If you are a journalist and would like a copy of this report, please contact

2 thoughts on “Six Decades of Felonies in America

  1. Don’t forget the SENIOR CITIZENS that are incarcerated on a FIRST TIME -NON VILENT OFFENSE! Due to certain health issues had to take, Prescribed Medications that altered their cognative thinking to say the least. Someone should do a story on this issues because it is RISING!! So most of our Senior Citizens that are incarcerated for the first time leave behind devistation because often times they are the majority of the income of the household. Something needs to be done to stop our Seniors from going to prison on a FIRST TIME -NON VIOLENT OFFENSE, help them instead of incarceration. Most won’t live to come back to their loved ones.

  2. Pingback: Six decades of felonies in america | NC PDCORE

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