A new study by researchers at Butler University and Duke University reveals that while the U.S. prison population is declining, the percentage of Americans who will be imprisoned at some point in their lives remains high. The research is also the first to measure lifetime imprisonment risk among American Indians and Alaska Natives, who face greater risk than any other racial group.

According to the study conducted by Alexander Roehrkasse, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Butler University, and Christopher Wildeman, professor of sociology at Duke University, the lifetime risk of imprisonment for Black American men is dramatically changing. After rising from about one-in-five in the 1980s to nearly one-in-two in the early 2000s, it fell to roughly one-in-six in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available.

“For years, scientists, policymakers, and journalists have been citing old data when discussing the percentage of Americans who can expect to be imprisoned in the course of their lives,” Roehrkasse said. “Our research provides a much-needed update to our knowledge about racial inequality and criminal justice in the United States. Black-white gaps in imprisonment risk are decreasing, but because they’re falling from such extremes, they remain quite wide.”

The study shows that if recent rates of prison admission continue, one-in-eleven men and one-in-forty-nine women in the United States can now expect to be imprisoned in their lives. While risk among white men has declined in recent years, risk among white women remains at an all-time high.

Roehrkasse and Wildeman also revealed previously undocumented levels of imprisonment among American Indians and Alaska Natives. The researchers found that nearly half of all men identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives, as can more than 14 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women.

“The bottom line is that we are still living in an era of mass incarceration,” Roehrkasse said. “But our finding of extreme levels of imprisonment among American Indians and
Alaska Natives suggests that in conversations about jails and prisons today, we need to consider the institutional legacy of settler colonialism alongside the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.”

The research, published this month in Science Advances, was conducted over three years and based on restricted-access data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.