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A black male born around 1980 in Vermont was five times more likely to be in jail as a young adult than a black male growing up at the same time in Rhode Island, according to a study of incarceration rates by a group of Harvard economists.
Where a young person grows up has enormous consequences, according to data compiled by economists Raz Chetty and Nathan Hendren. The place where a person is reared can affect his or her income later in life and it can raise or lower the probability of landing in jail.
Incarceration rates for young men appear to be particularly affected by the state where they grow up.
Chetty and Hendren have tracked millions of people over time through Census data and tax returns. From these records they can tell where people lived, their family income, race, their individual income and if they were in jail on a particular date. Chetty and Hendren are particularly interested in the effect of place on children who come from poor families. (See all their data and papers.)
Rural communities are generally good places to grow up. Those from poor families who are reared in rural communities are more likely to have higher incomes later in life and they are less likely to be incarcerated, as we have previously reported.
The data from Chetty and Hendren also shows that states have a large impact on the likelihood of a young man ending up in jail.
The chart below shows the percentage of a male cohort born between 1978 and 1983 who grew up in each state and were in jail on April 1, 2010. The men in this group would have been between 27 and 32 years old at the time. (April 1, 2010, was Census Day, which is how the researchers found the location of the men in the cohort.) All of these men grew up in families that were relatively poor, being in the bottom quarter of national income.
This data does not tell where a young man was jailed. It only tells the state where a young person grew up and if he was in jail on April 1, 2010. Those in jail could have been anywhere.
The charts include only men because there is very little variation in female incarceration rates, regardless of race or state. You can see from the chart that incarceration rates for young black men were far higher than for white or Hispanic men. And you can see that the rates vary dramatically from state to state. (Sort the table by clicking on the column labels at the top.)
Delaware and Virginia have high incarceration rates for all young men. Maine and Rhode Island have much lower rates. The incarceration rate for young Hispanic males growing up in North Dakota is five times larger than that for Hispanic men growing up in New York. Black incarceration rates are generally higher, but some states have rates twice those of others.
The researchers say they have not studied the differences in state rates of incarceration. They know some factors that decrease the chances a person in this cohort would wind up in jail. Those places that were good for children had lots of two-parent families, low poverty rates and low levels of racial bias.
But those traits were more rooted in a community than a state.
The large differences in state incarceration rates for men await more study by the Harvard economists.