Lauren C. Porter, Shawn D. Bushway*, Hui-Shien Tsao*, Herbert L. Smith


ABSTRACT: This article provides a demographic exposition of the changes in the U.S prison population during the period of mass incarceration that began in the late twentieth century. By drawing on data from the Survey of Inmates in State Correctional Facilities (1974–2004) for inmates 17–72 years of age (N = 336), we show that the age distribution shifted upward dramatically: Only 16 percent of the state prison population was 40 years old or older in 1974; by 2004, this percentage had doubled to 33 percent with the median age of prisoners rising from 27 to 34 years old. By using an estimable function approach, we find that the change in the age distribution of the prison population is primarily a cohort effect that is driven by the “enhanced” penal careers of the cohorts who hit young adulthood—the prime age of both crime and incarceration—when substance use was at its peak. Period-specific factors (e.g., proclivity for punishment and incidence of offense) do matter, but they seem to play out more across the life cycles of persons most affected in young adulthood (cohort effects) than across all age groups at one point in time (period effects).

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* Denotes CSDA Associates and Staff