Locking Up My Generation: Cohort Differences in Prison Spells and Correctional Supervision Over the Life Course

Yinzhi Shen, University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY)
Shawn Bushway, University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY)
Lucy Sorensen, University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY)
Herbert L. Smith , University of Pennsylvania

The prison population in the United States is aging, but prior demographic research has not found support for the two most common explanations – longer prison sentences and general population aging. In this paper, we explore an alternative hypothesis – that there are large, non-linear cohort effects. The dataset consists of every prison spell in North Carolina from 1972 to 2016 annually (N~1.6 million). Using APC analysis, we found larger cohort-specific changes in the rate of serving prison sentence relative to period-specific changes. 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. We show that a birth cohort’s experience in the correctional system in their 20’s has a persisting effect throughout their life course, particularly for African-Americans.

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 Presented in Session 9. Marriage, Family, Households, & Unions; Gender, Race, & Ethnicity