What Generational Incarceration Numbers Mean and What Can Be Done About Them


The United States has the second highest incarceration rate in the world with 5.8% of men either currently or previously having been in prison. Felony rates have been increasing since 1980, but the generational impact is disparate. Let’s take a deep look at the hard data to understand the overall incarceration numbers and learn what they mean. We’ll then discuss what could be done about it.

The Hard Data

In general, younger generations are far more likely to have a felony conviction than older generations. We can use Intelius’s generational felony statistics for Texas as a proxy for the national trend. For adults born before 1945, less than 1% had a felony conviction. Fewer than 2% of Baby Boomers were convicted, while the rate is barely under 10% for Generation X. Generation Y has the highest felony conviction rate with nearly 12% of them carrying a felony conviction. North Carolina is the exception, where Generation X beats Generation Y in the number of felony convictions, but that reflects their earlier correction of laws that led to skyrocketing felony conviction rates.

The type of crime each generation is convicted of varies significantly. For example, generation Z is most often found guilty of breaking and entering, burglary, and possession of a controlled substance in amounts less than one gram. For generation Y, the most common offense is possession of controlled substances in small amounts followed by theft of property and burglary. For generation X, possession of controlled substances and DUI are the most common felonies.

What These Numbers Mean

A criminal conviction, especially a felony conviction, affects someone for the rest of their lives. High incarceration rates may actually increase crime. Studies suggest high incarceration rates put low level offenders in contact with hardened criminals, increasing the odds they return to crime.

One study found that every year in prison increased the odds of a post-release charge by 5.6% per quarter. Another study found that long prison sentences caused a 14% increase in recidivism, whereas community-based sanctions were correlated with a 5% increase. Long sentences mean parents aren’t there for their children, increasing the delinquency of their children by 4%.

A Few Solutions on the Table

The odds of securing employment post-release falls by 3.6% for every year someone is behind bars, though employment is one of the best ways to keep someone out of trouble. One identified solution is altering mandatory minimum sentencing laws to focus only on high-level criminals, not young, non-violent offenders. This would result in fewer long sentences for non-violent offenders that make it much less likely they find employment after their release.

Another solution is providing more training and education for those in prison so they have an easier time finding work after release. This reduces the odds someone would return to a life of crime because they don’t have any other option. That would also reduce the rates at which offenders end up relying on welfare. Even misdemeanor offenders are relying on welfare programs like food stamps at an increased rate than non-offenders.

Aside from the general stigma former prisoners face, many states have work restrictions such as limits on occupational licensing that prevents them from qualifying for certain jobs. Loosening or lifting these restrictions improves their ability to find gainful employment.

Over-criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on young adults just as they are starting out their lives. There are solutions on the table to reduce incarceration rates and ease their way back into the workforce and general society.