Casualties of the ‘Crack’ Era: Today’s Aging Prisoners

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Photo by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr

The American prison population is getting older, with thousands of inmates behind bars today who have spent the majority of their lives in prisons. However, according to a new report published in the Criminology journal, many aren’t there for heinous crimes;  they were young adults during a time when there were harsher sentencing laws.

The researchers, a group of sociologists and criminologists from the State University at Albany (SUNY) and the University of Pennsylvania, analyzed data of every “prison spell” in North Carolina from 1972 to 2016, which resulted in a data population of 1.6 million inmates.

The study, entitled “Locking Up My Generation,” found that the generation that was in their early 20s during the crack epidemic in the 1980s received longer prison sentences than those cohorts who entered into the correction system as young adults before and after that time period.

Using Age-Period-Cohort analysis, the authors identified a “cohort effect” within the 1.6 million inmate sample, where the demographics had “larger cohort-specific changes in the rate of serving prison sentence[s] relative to period-specific changes.”

A cohort effect takes place when social science researchers find results in their studies because the sample population being studied shares “common historical or social experiences,” according to ThoughtCo.

In the case of this study, the shared common experience is age and, and the common historical experience is the tough-on-crime era. 

Specifically, the researchers found, “From roughly 1985 to 2010, cohorts who were age 24 at those times ‘picked up’ a much higher likelihood of being in prison or under post-release supervision—throughout their observable lifetimes—than cohorts who entered young adulthood before and after those years.”

In other words, individuals who were adults during that 25-year- period were more likely to experience incarceration in their lifetime than others in years before or after.

This likelihood of being incarcerated was exacerbated by the shift towards enforcing longer sentences and putting people behind bars because of the war on drugs.

“A 20-year-old receiving a mandatory five-year term in 1995 would still be incarcerated in, say, 1998,” the study authors wrote. “Whereas a 20-year-old in 1985 receiving a discretionary three-year term for the same offense would not likely still have been incarcerated for that crime in 1988.”

Moreover, the authors found that these harsher sentences disproportionately impacted Black Americans.

“We have already been using the micro data to consider cohort differences in sub-populations,” the authors wrote.

“It turns out that the sentencing shocks have been felt most acutely among the African-American population.”

This is important because it highlights how an “entire generation was hurt by harsher enforcement and sentencing regimes that existed in earlier times,” leaving some inmates to pay the price for their crimes for years longer than they would if their crimes were committed today.

“The challenge now is to use the micro data on careers to flesh out how this process plays out over the life course,” the authors report, noting that more research has to be done

Yinzhi Shen is a Ph.D candidate of Sociology at University of Albany SUNY.

Shawn Bushway is a  Professor of Public Administration & Policy at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University of Albany SUNY.

Lucy Sorensen is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration & Policy at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University of Albany SUNY.

Herbert L. Smith is a Professor of Sociology and the Director of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

This report is available for free downloading until Sept. 21, and for purchase after that.

See also: Sentencing Reform and Common Sense, by Tom Richety, The Crime Report, Aug. 26, 2020.

Additional Reading: The Next Step in Prison Reform: Release Aging Inmates?

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