Crime and Mass Incarceration


If you are interested in reading more on these issues, I recommend Ruth Peterson and Lauren Krivo, “Segregated Spatial Locations, Race-Ethnic Composition, and Neighborhood Violent Crime,” for a discussion of how concentrated poverty as well as racial and class segregation affect neighborhood crime rates.

CQ Researcher has several short reports that provide background information on federal and state criminal justice policies and the challenges posed by high incarceration rates, especially once offenders are released back into the community.  These include:

  • Alex Kingsbury, “Gangs in the U.S.: Are Anti-Gang Efforts by Law Enforcement Effective?” (2010)
  • William Triplett, “Gang Crisis: Do Police and Politicians Have a Solution?” (2004)
  • Thomas Billitteri, “Youth Violence: Are ‘Get Tough’ Policies the Best Approach?” (2010)
  • Peter Katel, “Fighting Crime: Can Inner-City Crime Be Significantly Reduced?” (2008)
  • Peter Katel, “Prisoner Reentry: Can Aid to Ex-Inmates Significantly Reduce Recidivism?” (2009)
And here’s a tidbit that is interesting.  Many liberals have long argued that concentrated poverty creates crime, but reduce the concentrations of poverty and crime rates should go down.  It is a logic similar to that which drove the Moving To Opportunity (MTO) experiments.  Well, Memphis, Tennessee, actually tried this approach, tearing down its housing projects and moving the residents to neighborhoods with lower crime and poverty rates.  The result?  The problem got worse, much worse!  Crime rates shot up and did so in a larger number of neighborhoods.  No one knows exactly why, but there are several possible theories, a classic public policy mystery!  See Hannah Rosin, “American Murder Mystery: Why is Crime Rising in So Many American Cities? The Answer Implicates One of the Most Celebrated Antipoverty Programs of Recent Decades.”

There’s been lots of great research in recent years on the effect of incarceration on communities and the nation (economic and political costs):

Sinead Keegan and Amy Solomon, “Prisoner Reentry in Virginia” (Urban Institute, 2004) *

Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration” *

Bruce Western and Katherine Beckett, “How Unregulated Is the U.S. Labor Market?: The Penal System as a Labor Market Institution” *

Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman, “The Black Family and Mass Incarceration” *

Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, “Incarceration and Racial Inequality in Men’s Unemployment” *

James C. Thomas and Elizabeth Torrrone, “Incarceration as Forced Migration: Effects on Selected Community Health Outcomes” *

Pew Charitable Trusts, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility *

James P. Lynch and William Sabol, “Assessing the Effects of Mass Incarceration on Informal Social Control in Communities” *

Certainly a significant question to ask in this policy area, is how much voice do the citizens who are most affected by these policies have in the decision making processes.  Could it be the case that the policy that is supposed to be the solution to their problems — “getting tough” on crime — actually strip these communities of their political voice?  The studies below suggest so:

Christopher Uggen, Jeff Manza, and Melissa Thompson, “Citizenship, Democracy, and Civic Reintegration of Criminal Offenders” *

Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, “Democratic Contraction?: Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States” *

It is worth thinking about whether democracy is compatible with high levels of income inequality, especially inequality that is replicated across space such that we end up with social isolation of low-income minorities.  If we have racial and class segregation, then can we be assured that those citizens with privilege will understand the problems of low-income communities?  If most of their information about crime comes from the media or racial stereotypes, will democratic processes further exacerbate crime in low-income communities?