Unemployment and racial differences in imprisonment

  • Samuel L. Myers
  • William J. Sabol
Frontier Articles


Conventional wisdom about the criminal justice system suggests that extralegal factors such as race or employment status should not affect sentencing outcomes. In this paper we examine an alternative model of the relationship between imprisonment and unemployment and race. The model suggests that penal practices are shaped by the labor market conditions of a system of production and that prisons, as part of a larger set of institutions providing support for economically-dependent populations, help to regulate the most superfluous group of workers in the industrial economy of the Northern states of the United States—unemployed black workers who comprise a large fraction of the pool of “reserve” workers necessary for price stability and economic expansion. We find support for the structural model that links black imprisonment (and Northern imprisonment in general) to manufacturing output and black unemployment.


Labor Market Business Cycle Crime Rate Imprisonment Rate Labor Market Condition 
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    Previous research, e.g., Greenberg (1977) and Jankovic (1977) has used the unemployment rate or the number unemployed as the measure for the reserve. However, official unemployment rates omit a significant number of persons who are not working but would like to be working and could be defined as members of the labor force if economic conditions became favorable enough to draw them into the ranks of the employed or “officially unemployed.” Further, by most counts the official unemployment figures grossly underestimate the extent of unemployment, particularly among black males. Since we wished to include persons who could participate in the labor force in our unemployment concept, the measure that we used is better than unemployment rates. It does, however, overestimate the true size of the “reserve” since it includes persons who are incapable of working. This probably results in a regression coefficient that is biased downward, which means that the reported coefficients are underestimates of the true effects.Google Scholar
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    Parole and probation were included in the analysis to determine the effects of changes in penal sanctions on imprisonment. As was described in the text, the theory that we tested grants that criminal justice officials believe that they are responding primarily to the severity of crime and not to levels of employment or unemployment in meting out sentences or releasing convicts. Further, since no measures of crime or crime rates exist for the entire period that we covered, we used parole and probation as proxies for criminal conditions or the effects of crime on imprisonment. If criminal justice officials are influenced by crime rates in sentencing offenders, then we expect to find a negative coefficient on the probation variable. If crime levels are exceedingly high, then the sentencing provided by probation discretion should reflect the tendencies of judges and to combat crime. Use of probation should decrease when crime increases, causing imprisonment rates to increase since judges would be more prone to sentence offenders to prison than, for fear of recidivism, to release them. At the other end, even though parole boards might share in the same reluctance as judges to release offenders early, parole is an effective means to alleviate overcrowded prison conditions. Thus the sign on parole cannot be predicted without ambiguity even though the Berk, et. al. work cited earlier suggests that it should be negative.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Samuel L. Myers
  • William J. Sabol

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