64 U. Colo. L. Rev. 743 (1993)
Racial Disproportionality of U.S. Prison Populations Revisited

handle is hein.journals/ucollr64 and id is 773 raw text is: RACIAL DISPROPORTIONALITY OF U.S.
PRISON POPULATIONS REVISITED
ALFRED BLUMSTEIN*
INTRODUCTION
Over the past two decades, the growth in prison populations
in the United States has been astonishing. The trend in prison
populations over the fifty year period from the mid-1920s to the
mid-1970s (shown in Figure 1) had been impressively stable. The
nation's incarceration rate averaged about 110 per 100,000 popu-
lation, with a coefficient of variation' of only about eight percent.2
Indeed, the phenomenon was sufficiently stable, both in the United
States and elsewhere, that it encouraged two hardy souls to publish
a paper that developed a theory of the stability of punishment.3
That theory attempted to explain the trendless pattern in incarcer-
ation rates in terms of shifting thresholds of the seriousness of
offenses that warrant imprisonment. When crime rates increase,
the threshold goes up and formerly punished offenses end up being
dealt with less severely than through imprisonment; and when crime
rates come down, there is spare capacity for punishment that can
be used to punish offenses (like child sexual abuse, for example)
that were previously viewed as only marginal.
When the period following the mid-1970s is added to the
picture (see Figure 2), one must be impressed by the much'more
dramatic growth of the incarceration rate subsequent to that pe-
riod, a growth rate that has averaged about eight percent per year
since 1980.
One of the distressing aspects of the United States's prison
populations is the very high degree of disproportionality in the
incarceration rates for blacks compared to whites, with a ratio of
about seven to one. An earlier article based on data from the
* H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, Carnegie Mellon
University. The author wishes to note that he has discussed these issues with Jacqueline
Cohen and Angela Williams but that they, of course, have no responsibility in this article.
1. The coefficient of variation is the ratio of the standard deviation of the annual
readings to their mean.
2. See Alfred Blumstein & Jacqueline Cohen, A Theory of the Stability of Punish-
ment, 64 J. CRIM. L. & CRIMINOLOGY 198, 201 (1972).
3. Id. at 198.

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