Collective Consequences of Mass Incarceration
Mass incarceration is a historically novel, uniquely American, mechanism
of inequality. In the context of existing patterns of stratification
in the labor market, family structure, and neighborhoods, high rates
of incarceration and high levels of exposure to the criminal justice
system more generally, exact damaging consequences that endure
over lifetimes. Mass incarceration is thus a key determinant of racial
inequality. At the same time, high concentrations of exposure to partners,
parents, and community members who are justice-involved reinforces
inequality across geographies, groups, and generations. Thus,
while spending time in prison or jail can be a remarkably solitary
experience, the costs of mass incarceration are not simply collateral
consequences for individuals but are borne collectively , most notably
by African Americans living in acutely disadvantaged communities.
Individuals returning home from prison move to a relatively small
number of cities, counties, and even neighborhoods, which concentrates
the costs of mass incarceration (Clear 2007 ; Harding et al.
2013 ; La Vigne and Parthasarathy 2005 ; Pew Charitable Trusts 2010 ;
Sampson and Loeffler 2010 ; Visher and Travis 2011 ). In a longitudinal
study of Michigan prisoners paroled in 2003, Morenoff and Harding
( 2011 ) find that half of all returning parolees were concentrated in 12
percent of Michigan’s census tracts, and one-quarter of the parolees
were concentrated in just 2 percent of the tracts.
Sampson, Raudenbush, and Earls ( 1997 ) have developed a composite
measure of concentrated disadvantage in which a high score
represents a greater degree of disadvantage. The average score in the
communities where parolees lived was almost one standard deviation
higher than the state-wide average, suggesting that the communities
where individuals return from prison have considerably higher levels
Mass Incarceration and Racial Inequality 1171
of poverty, unemployment, and residential instability. The disadvantaged
conditions of neighborhoods to which individuals return home
from prison negatively impact labor market outcomes, including employment,
wages, and income. In their study of Michigan parolees,
Morenoff and Harding ( 2011 ) found that, at most, 20 percent of individuals
who returned from prison in the previous year earned sufficient
income in the formal labor market to meet the basic material
needs of a single person.
Given that mass incarceration is characterized by extraordinarily
high rates of criminal justice contact among impoverished black men,
and that poor blacks largely reside in racially and economically segregated
communities, the effects of mass incarceration are further concentrated
by race and ethnicity. Fagan and colleagues ( 2002 ) found that
incarceration disproportionately affects New York’s poorest neighborhoods,
and that these areas received more intense and punitive policing
and surveillance even during periods of general declines in crime.
Despite a drastic reduction in the number of those at risk of criminal
involvement in those neighborhoods, police persistently monitor
these communities, perpetuating disadvantage and harm and leading
to “the first genuine prison society of history” (Wacquant 2001 ). By removing
large numbers of young men from concentrated areas, incarceration
reduces neighborhood stability (Petersilia 2003 ). The cycling
of men between correctional facilities and communities may even
begin to trigger higher crime rates within a neighborhood, a process
Clear ( 2007 : 73) describes as “coercive mobility.” Contemporary research
suggests that high rates of incarceration increase policing and
surveillance in local areas in ways that reinforce further punishment.
Other research confirms that prison admissions predominately
come from select counties and urban neighborhoods, and that returns
from prison are concentrated in many of those very same neighborhoods.
Lynch and Sabol ( 2001 ) found that a mere 3 percent of
the census block groups in Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland) account
for more than 20 percent of the state’s prison population, with
an expected 350–700 formerly incarcerated individuals returning to
those very same block groups each year following release. Lynch and
Sabol further found that, in 1984, approximately 50 percent of prison
1172 The American Journal of Economics and Sociology
releases returned to urban counties. By 1996, this figure had increased
to 66 percent. For those rearrested after release, the trend was even
more dramatic: 42 percent returned to urban counties in 1984 and 75
percent by 1996. For neighborhoods that witness such widespread
police surveillance, criminal justice involvement has become an integral
component of the collective experience (Weaver and Lerman
2010 ). Yet, absent perceptible improvements in public safety, heightened
surveillance in already disadvantaged neighborhoods leads to
repudiation of legal authorities and a reduced willingness to comply
with the law (Tyler 2003 ; Weaver and Lerman 2010 ).
Mass incarceration produces widespread detrimental outcomes for
people who are incarcerated or face other forms of legal punishment,
their children and families, and neighborhoods and communities already
characterized by crime and disadvantage. Moreover, the legal
effects of mass incarceration produce consequences for the nation’s
representativeness and participation in democracy and society across
generations. The greater disadvantages suffered by single parents in
raising children are detailed in the literature on the collateral consequences
of mass incarceration on children and families. In addition,
children with parents involved in the criminal justice system endure
worse mental health and behavioral issues. However, studies of these
collateral effects have two drawbacks. The first is a strong male bias.
They largely focus on the ways mass incarceration perpetuates future
inequality by examining how males in the next generation become
caught up in the criminal justice system through the repeated cycle
of incarceration within their families and communities. Measuring inequality
through the perpetuation of crime and punishment, however,
largely ignores the experience of daughters of incarcerated parents
since most females never engage in crime to the extent that they
face incarceration. The second problem with research on multi-generational
impacts is that it does not adequately address how disproportionality
in surveillance, policing, prosecution, and sentencing
contribute to disproportionality in engagement with legal authorities,
quite distinctly from engagement in criminal activities.
While evidence on mass incarceration and its effects are increasingly
clear, questions about the implications of new forms of surveillance
Mass Incarceration and Racial Inequality 1173
and other types of contact with the criminal justice system remain.
In the age of big data and hyper-surveillance systems, how are the
experiences and consequences of mass incarceration related to other
ways in which at-risk groups are identified by criminal justice agencies?
Does the linkage of data between criminal and noncriminal justice
institutions, like banks and health-care systems, undermine the
economic, political, and social engagement of historically disadvantaged
and hyper-surveilled groups, especially blacks? Do new data
technologies from facial recognition to DNA archiving make some
groups uniquely vulnerable to increased scrutiny? How do new forms
of noncustodial punishment—from fines and fees to repeated court
appearances—influence economic, health, and political outcomes for
individuals and communities?
Legal and social institutions in the United States increasingly rely
on beliefs of colorblindness (avoidance of racial classification), which
ignore the underlying social and political processes that differentiate
racial groups above and beyond visual differences. Employing colorblind
policies and laws in order to achieve equality between racial
and ethnic groups denies the social, cultural, and political phenomena
attached to race, maintaining injustices for vulnerable minorities. The
American criminal justice system and its effects are not colorblind. A
wide range of factors have aligned to shape the laws, policies, and
practices currently in place that effectively sustain systematic patterns
of incarceration. In turn, those patterns concentrate both the experience
of criminal justice contact and its consequences among people
of color from a relatively small number of communities. The resulting
inequalities stray far from and undermine the stated purposes of most
laws aimed at reducing and controlling crime. Future research must
more directly consider how contemporary rhetoric surrounding colorblindness
influences our collective aspirations for equality, representativeness,
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African American Men:
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