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«This PDF is available from The National Academies Press at The Growth of Incarceration in the United ...»

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Tonry, 2011a; Garland, 2010). As Murakawa (forthcoming, Chapter 5) shows, the U.S. House and U.S. Senate have been far more likely to enact stiffer mandatory minimum sentence legislation in the weeks prior to an election. Because of the nation’s system of frequent legislative elections, dispersed governmental powers, and election of judges and prosecutors, policy makers tend to be susceptible to public alarms about crime and drugs and vulnerable to pressures from the public and political opponents to quickly enact tough legislation. Such actions serve an expressive purpose over the short run but may have negative long-term consequences (Tonry, 2007b, p. 40).23 Incentives for supporting certain kinds of crime-related initiatives also tend to be misaligned across different levels of government.

For example, it is relatively easy for local government officials to advocate increased sentence lengths and higher incarceration rates that state government officials are typically responsible for funding (including the building and running of state penitentiaries). Yet, despite taking hard-line positions on crime control, local governments often hire too few police officers (since cities and counties are responsible for paying nearly all local police budgets) (Stuntz, 2011, p. 289; Lacey, 2010, p. 111).

Lappi-Seppälä (2008) finds that democracies that are “consensual” (i.e., having a larger number of major political parties, proportional representation, and coalition governments) have lower rates of incarceration and have experienced smaller increases in incarceration since 1980 than winner-take-all, two-party democracies, such as the United States. Lacey (2008) and others (Cavadino and Dignan, 2006; de Giorgi, 2006) find that countries (such as Germany) with consensual electoral systems and coordinated market economies tend to be less punitive and more conducive to inclusionary and welfarist policies than the United States and Britain, whose electoral systems are less consensual and whose market economies are relatively less regulated.

In the United States, most prosecutors are elected, as are most judges (except those who are nominated through a political process). Therefore, they are typically mindful of the political environment in which they function. Judges in competitive electoral environments in the United States tend to mete out harsher sentences (Gordon and Huber, 2007; Huber and Gordon, 2004). In contrast, prosecutors and judges in many European countries are career civil servants who have evolved a distinctive 23 It is also important to note, however, that in England and Wales, the concentration of political power rather than its dispersal has made it possible to adopt and implement a wide range of punitive policies. And although Switzerland shares many of the dispersed and populist features of the U.S. system, its penal policies generally have been stable over the past several decades (Tonry, 2007b).

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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*According to Gottschalk (2006, p. 48), “the association in the South of crime and race made it impossible to embrace rehabilitation, the raison d’être for the penitentiary.... The roots of the penitentiary were shallow in the South” and were uprooted by the Civil War. After the Civil War, the convict leasing system was widely adopted in the south as an alternative means of punishment and played an important role in the region’s economic life.

occupational culture with a less punitive orientation, partly as a result of differences in legal training and career paths between the United States and European countries (Savelsberg, 1994).

Cultural differences—in particular, the degree of social and political trust and cohesion—also help explain some of the variation in incarceration rates, both cross-nationally and within the United States. (Box 4-1 provides some historical context for understanding regional variation in Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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incarceration.) In cross-national comparisons, Lappi-Seppälä (2008) finds a negative relationship (which has grown stronger over time) between punitiveness and social and political trust, and a positive cross-sectional relationship between high levels of social and political trust and more generous welfare policies. Within the United States, incarceration rates generally have been lower in states with higher levels of social capital, voter participation, and other forms of complex civic engagement (Barker, 2009).

In examining the underlying causes of high rates of incarceration, it is important to keep in mind that the factors that sparked the increase may not be the same as those that currently sustain it. Economic interests, for example, initially did not play a central role in the upward turn in incarceration rates. Over time, however, the buildup created new economic interests and new political configurations. By the mid-1990s, the new economic interests—including private prison companies, prison guards’ unions, and the suppliers of everything from bonds for new prison construction to Taser stun guns—were playing an important role in maintaining and sustaining the incarceration increase. The influence of economic interests that profit from high rates of incarceration grew at all levels of government, due in part to a “revolving door” that emerged between the corrections industry and the public sector. Another factor was the establishment of powerful, effective, and well-funded lobbying groups to represent the interests of the growing corrections sector. The private prison industry and other companies that benefit from large prison populations have expended substantial effort and resources in lobbying for more punitive laws and for fewer restrictions on the use of prison labor and private prisons (Elk and Sloan, 2011; Thompson, 2010, 2012; Gilmore, 2007; Hallinan, 2001; Herival and Wright, 2007; Gopnik, 2012; Abramsky, 2007). Many legislators and other public officials, especially in economically struggling rural areas, became strong advocates of prison and jail construction in the 1990s, seeing it as an important engine for economic development. The evidence suggests, however, that prisons generally have an insignificant, or sometimes negative, impact on the economic development of the rural communities where they are located (Whitfield, 2008).24 24 Residents of rural counties, which have been the primary sites for new prison construction since the 1980s, are no less likely to be unemployed than people living in counties without prisons, nor do they have higher per capita incomes. New jobs created by prisons tend to be filled by people living outside the county where the prison is built. Prisons also fail to generate significant linkages to the local economy because local businesses often are unable to provide the goods and services needed to operate penal facilities. Furthermore, new prison construction often necessitates costly public investments in infrastructure and services, such as roads, sewers, and courts, where the prisons are sited (Gilmore, 2007; King et al., 2003).





Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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URBAN ECONOMIC DISTRESS

While the political developments discussed above were marked by specific events—for example, elections, campaigns, and policy developments— long-term structural changes in urban economies also formed part of the context for the growth in incarceration rates. In American cities, problems of violence, poverty, unemployment, and single parenthood came together in minority neighborhoods as a focus of debates on crime and social policy.

The connections among crime, poverty, and criminal punishment have been a long-standing interest of social theorists. They have argued that the poor are punished most because their involvement in crime and life circumstances are seen as threatening to social order. (Rusche [1978] provides a classic statement of the connection between incarceration and unemployment; Garland [1991] reviews the literature on the political economy of punishment.) In this view, the scale and intensity of criminal punishment fluctuate with overall economic cycles.

The social and economic decline of American cities in the 1970s and 1980s is well documented. William Julius Wilson (1987) provides a classic account in The Truly Disadvantaged. In Wilson’s view, the decline of manufacturing industry employment combined with the out-migration of many working- and middle-class families to the suburbs. These economic and demographic changes left behind pockets of severe and spatially concentrated poverty (see also Jargowsky, 1997). It was in these poor communities that contact with the criminal justice system and incarceration rates climbed to extraordinary levels, particularly among young minority men with little schooling. Rates of joblessness, births to single or unmarried parents, and violent crime all increased in poor inner-city neighborhoods. These social and economic trends unfolded in the broader context of deteriorating economic opportunities for men with low levels of education, especially those who had dropped out of high school (Goldin and Katz, 2008), and the decline of organized labor and the contraction of well-paying manufacturing and other jobs in urban areas for low-skilled workers.

Rising incarceration rates overall appear to be produced primarily by the increased imprisonment of uneducated young men, especially those lacking a college education (see Chapter 2). In the wake of the civil rights movement, improved educational and economic opportunities appeared to foreshadow a new era of prosperity for blacks in the 1960s. However, the decline of urban manufacturing undermined economic opportunities for those with no more than a high school education. Fundamental changes also were unfolding in urban labor markets as labor force participation declined among young, less educated black men (Smith and Welch, 1989;

Offner and Holzer, 2002; Fairlie and Sundstrom, 1999). In a careful review of labor market data from the 1970s and 1980s, Bound and Freeman Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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(1992) found growing racial gaps in earnings and employment that extended from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s.

The connections among urban unemployment, crime, and incarceration have been found in ethnographic and quantitative studies. With fewer well-paying economic opportunities available, some young men in poor inner-city neighborhoods turned to drug dealing and other criminal activities as sources of income. Ethnographers have documented the proliferation of drug dealing and violence in high-unemployment urban neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s (Bourgois, 2002; Anderson, 1990; Levitt and Venkatesh, 2000; Black, 2009). Qualitative researchers also argue that in poor urban areas, drunkenness, domestic disturbances, and the purchase and consumption of illegal drugs are more likely to take place in public places, whereas in suburban and more affluent urban areas, these activities tend to transpire in private homes and other private spaces. Consequently, poor urban residents are more exposed to police scrutiny and are more likely to be arrested than people residing in the suburbs or in wealthier urban neighborhoods (Duneier, 1999, pp. 304-307; Anderson, 1990, pp. 193Field observation is consistent with the finding of quantitative studies that, controlling for crime, incarceration rates increased with joblessness among African American men with no college education (Western, 2006;

Western et al., 2006).

In short, poor inner-city neighborhoods were increasingly plagued by higher rates of unemployment among young men, crime, and other social problems. These same neighborhoods were the focal points of debates over crime and social policy, and the places where incarceration became pervasive.

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

–  –  –

Rather, it was the result of the particular ways in which the political system chose to respond to the major postwar changes in U.S. society, particularly since the 1960s. Unlike many other Western countries, the United States responded to escalating crime rates by enacting highly punitive policies and laws and turning away from rehabilitation and reintegration. The broader context provides a set of important explanations for both the punitive path that many politicians, policy makers, and other public figures decided to pursue and, perhaps more important, why so many Americans were willing to follow.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences A s discussed in previous chapters, the growth in U.S. incarceration rates over the past 40 years was propelled by changes in sentencing and penal policies that were intended, in part, to improve public safety and reduce crime. A key task for this committee was to review the evidence and determine whether and by how much the high rates of incarceration documented in Chapter 2 have reduced crime rates. In assessing the research on the impact of prison on crime, we paid particular attention to policy changes that fueled the growth of the U.S. prison population—longer prison sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, and the expanded use of prison in the nation’s drug law enforcement strategies.



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