Expert Commentary

Number of U.S. felons tripled in three decades

One-third of African American men have been convicted of a felony, according to data recently published in Demography. For white men, the figure is less than half that.


A growing share of Americans have felony records, according to data recently published in the journal Demography. Among African Americans, the ratio is much higher: Approximately 33 percent of African-American men have been convicted of a felony. The findings raise questions about the criminal justice system amid a “historic increase in criminal punishment,” the authors say.

A felony is a crime more serious than a misdemeanor, and can include a wide array of offenses depending on local legislation, from marijuana possession to murder. Though not all felons serve time in prison, a conviction can have far-reaching ramifications. “Many of the collateral consequences of punishment — most notably for the labor market, housing, and access to public supports — flow not from incarceration experiences but from the application of a widely known and publicly disseminated felony label.” In some states, people with felonies are also denied the right to vote.

The authors pair the limited available Justice Department data on convictions, incarcerations and recidivism with death, mobility and deportation rates to draw estimates for 1980 to 2010, though some of their data date back to 1948. They focus on African Americans and the population as a whole.


  • In 2010, 7.3 million U.S. adults were in prison or had been to prison.
  • Between 1980 and 2010, the adult male population that had spent time in prison jumped from 1.79 to 5.55 percent. For African-American men, that figure rose from 5.76 to 15.14 percent.
  • Between 1980 and 2010, the adult male population that had received a felony conviction rose from 5.25 percent to 12.81 percent. For African-American men, the number soared from 13.29 to 33.01 percent.
  • By 2010, the five states with the highest number of African-American felons (men and women) were California, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts and Washington. In each, over 20 percent of African Americans were convicted felons.
  • Maine was the state with the lowest rate of African-American felony convictions.

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