Race and Women’s Imprisonment: Poverty, African American Presence, and Social Welfare

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Female imprisonment rates have increased proportionately more than male imprisonment rates over recent decades. There are substantial race differences in women’s rates, as is the case for men. Yet, there has been little quantitative research on the correlates of women’s imprisonment using data over time, or on potential race differences in those correlates. The present research analyzes data on black and nonblack female imprisonment rates in the 50 states for the period 1981-2003. The analyses are guided substantively by existing research on race, social threat and criminal punishment, and theory and research on the penal-welfare hypothesis. The study uses bivariate-response multilevel modeling to simultaneously examine the factors associated with black and nonblack women’s imprisonment rates. The results show that black female imprisonment rates increase when the concentration of African Americans in metropolitan areas and poverty rates grow, whereas nonblack female imprisonment rates are unaffected by poverty rates and actually decrease when African American populations become more concentrated in metro areas. Both black and nonblack women’s imprisonment rates increase when welfare spending declines. The results are consistent with social threat perspectives and the penal-welfare hypotheses.