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We have achieved the #cut50 goal for black men under age 30

In 2015, the Marshall Project reported that many criminal justice reform organizations were uniting behind a goal to reduce the prison population by 50% over 10 to 15 years. Recently released prisoner statistics show that we have already achieved that #cut50 goal for black men under the age of 30, from 2001 to 2015. This is how mass incarceration will end – the way it began – tracking earlier trends in preschool lead exposure.

From 2001 to 2015, black male incarceration rates fell 48% for ages 25-29, 53% for ages 20-24, and 66% for ages 18-19, as white male incarceration rates fell by 21% for ages 25-29, 42% for ages 20-24, and 72% for ages 18-19. High 2001 young male incarceration rates were caused by lead poisoning in the 1970s. Declining young male incarceration rates through 2015 resulted from declines in preschool blood lead due to the phase-out of leaded gasoline from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s. Incarceration declines have been larger for black males in their 20s because black children were disproportionately concentrated in cities where air lead levels were much higher.

From 2001 to 2015, black male incarceration rates also fell by 32% for ages 30-34 and 23% for ages 34-39, as white male incarceration rates fell 13% for ages 30-34 and were unchanged for ages 35-39. As I explained in Lucifer Curves, severe lead poisoning for black children peaked in the early-1960s, when black children were disproportionately living in urban slum housing with additive exposure to severe lead paint hazards and city air lead hazards, before urban renewal projects demolished a large amount of substandard slum housing over the 1960s.

Data for older prisoners, available since 2007, show incarceration rates are still rising for men born when lead exposure was still rising. From 2007 to 2015, male incarceration rates increased 14% for ages 45-49, 53% for ages 50-54, and more than 63% for ages 55-64. Those trends were ongoing in 2015: From 2014 to 2015, male incarceration rates fell by 16% for ages 18-19, 8% for ages 20-24, and 4% for ages 25-34, but increased by 2% for ages 50-64.

We are now near the tipping point where men profoundly affected by the worst years of preschool lead poisoning are dying in prison or being released in their 60s oftentimes with physical ailments that limit the risk of recidivism. Arrest rates and incarceration rates are continuing to fall for younger age groups and soon that decline will spread to all age groups. USA prisons will empty out over the next few decades because the pipeline to prison has been running dry for the last several decades.