Locked Up, Locked Out

The social costs of incarceration

Do prisons make us safer? By taking would-be offenders off the streets, prisons clearly have reduced crime in the short run. In the long run, though, imprisonment erodes the bonds of work, family, and community that help preserve public safety.

Three effects are fundamental. First, former prisoners do worse economically than if they had never been incarcerated. We can see some evidence in a study I conducted in 2004 with the Princeton sociologist Devah Pager. We ran an audit experiment that sent trained testers to apply for more than 1,000 entry-level jobs throughout New York City. The fake job applicants were dressed similarly, gave similar answers, and provided résumés with identical education and work experience. At each job interview, however, one randomly chosen tester would tick the application box indicating a criminal record and submit a résumé that mentioned a prison and provided a parole officer as a reference.

White testers who were assigned a criminal record received call-backs or job offers from employers only half as often as testers with clean records. For African Americans, a criminal record reduced employment opportunities by two-thirds. Labor force data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth paint a similar picture of incarceration’s negative effects: Wages fall by about 15 percent after prison, yearly earnings are reduced by about 40 percent, and the pay of former prisoners (unlike compensation for the rest of the labor force) remains stagnant as they get older.

The second important effect of imprisonment falls not on ex-inmates but on their families. About half of all prison and jail inmates are parents with children under 18. By 2008 about 2.6 million children had a parent in prison or jail. By age 17, one in four African-American youth has a father who has been sent to prison.

Because of their poor job prospects, formerly incarcerated fathers are less able to contribute financially to their families. Because incarceration strains marital relations, those fathers are also less involved as parents. Compared to otherwise similar kids whose parents haven’t been behind bars, the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be depressed, behave aggressively, and drop out of high school. These problems appear to be more common for boys than girls. Incarceration, it seems, is weakening the bonds between fathers and sons.

The third important effect of incarceration is cultural, shaping how the institutions of law and order are viewed in high-crime/high-incarceration neighborhoods. The prison population is drawn overwhelmingly from low-income inner-city areas whose residents come to associate police and the courts with the surrounding social problems of violence and poverty. Police are viewed as unhelpful, and often unaccountable, contributing to what the Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson calls “legal cynicism” in troubled, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Part of the power of punishment as a deterrent to crime is the shame and stigma of a criminal record. Where incarceration has become commonplace, as it has in poor African-American communities, the righteousness of the police is no longer assumed and a prison record is not distinctive. The authority of the criminal justice system has been turned upside down, and the institutions charged with maintaining safety become objects of suspicion.

The negative effects of incarceration reduce the penal system’s capacity to control crime. Drug dealing and other illegal activities are more attractive to people with prison records, who have few legitimate prospects. Children of incarcerated parents, without a secure and predictable home life, are at risk of delinquency and school failure. And a community, soured on a capricious and unaccountable police force, is less likely to call for help or assist in investigations.

Because of the mounting social costs of incarceration, the benefits of prison have reached a point of diminishing returns. Sixty percent of state inmates are re-arrested within three years of being released from prison. Recidivism rates have not fallen despite a fourfold increase in incarceration rates since the 1970s.

We may care little about the job prospects of ex-cons. We may not even care much about their children or neighborhoods. But if the social costs of imprisonment grow without limit along with the prison population, mass incarceration becomes a self-defeating strategy for crime control. 

Reducing these social costs is an urgent priority. Successful programs now offer transitional jobs to released prisoners, support the children of incarcerated parents, cultivate police-community relations, and send fewer people to prison in the first place. Measures like these reduce the social damage of mass incarceration and promise a sustainable public safety. 

Bruce Western (Bruce_Western@harvard.edu) is a professor of sociology and director of the Program in Inequality and Social Policy at Harvard University.

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  • Gilbert Martin||

    Well we could always go back to the system they had in the middle ages.

    They didn't need any jails or prisons because the sentence for almost every offense was the same - death. And it was carried out with dispatch.

  • Rich||

    Death is kinda harsh. How about just the pillary and stocks for most offenses?

  • Rich||

    Except for spelling mistakes, of course.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    There were also exiles (temporary and permanent), though these often amounted to the same thing.

    And, in England, a method by which the accused could in essence plea down to exile by obtaining the protection of the church.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Well we could always go back to the system they had in the middle ages.

    They didn't need any jails or prisons because the sentence for almost every offense was the same - death. And it was carried out with dispatch.


    But I keep hearing the death penalty is more expensive than prison.

  • Federal Dog||

    Good luck persuading the prison guard unions.

  • The Derider||

    Good luck persuading "law and order" Republicans.

  • DoubleU||

    Good luck persuading "law and order" democrats.

  • Federal Dog||

    Barack Obama is not a Republican.

  • Sku||

    “Successful programs now offer transitional jobs to released prisoners, support the children of incarcerated parents…”

    So Reason is for giving more state aid to criminals than to honest, law-abiding working-class people?

    How about we don't give them aid, but we also don't imprison them (except for murder or serial rapists or the like), and instead do more of the eye for eye tooth for tooth style of punishment - make the punishment directly correspond to the crime - pay back two-fold for theft, castration for rape, death penalty for murder, public shaming via the stocks for corruption, and the like.

  • ||

    Barney Frank, stropped, tarred and feathered. I'd vote for you.

  • Thoughtcriminal||

    QUOTE: "Compared to otherwise similar kids whose parents haven’t been behind bars, the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be depressed, behave aggressively, and drop out of high school."

    You follow this with a non-causa-pro-causa conclusion. Consider the possibility that the genetic predisposition to poor impulse control is behind the kids' differences and the fathers' imprisonment. Weak "reasoning" discredits the whole article.

  • herp||

    Drink!

  • ||

    How about reserve prison for repeat offenders and those who are likely to repeat serious crimes, and get rid of all victimless laws?

    Use public humiliation, such as stocks, for first time offenders.

    What good does it do to throw Madoff in prison? Confiscate all his possessions, then let him get a job at 7-11.

  • Doubleu||

    I think congress, while in session, should be placed in stocks.

  • ||

    I dunno; they are more likely to want to be repeat offenders. Now if they spent their entire term in the stocks ...

  • Gilbert Martin||

    I expect most of them have already been placed in stock.

    Stock of General Electric, stock of GM, etc.

  • cynical||

    Flogging too, please.

  • ||

    "...imprisonment erodes the bonds of work, family, and community that help preserve public safety."
    What has happened to Reason over these last few months or so. It is no longer libertarian style with an understanding of the complexities & hypocrisies of the world. It has become a predominately loonie left mag.

  • ARM||

    huh? This sounds conservative, not lefty. Community, family, and work? C'mon.

    Plus all the studies on crime show that offenders are much less connected to work, family, and other community organizations (eg clubs, churches, schools, etc) than are non-offenders. So isolating people further from mainstream institutions and networks is likely to increase crime.

  • WTF?||

    For a magazine called reason....

    But seriously, what the fuck are you talking about?

  • ||

    I thought conservatives wanted people to be bonded to family and indepdendent, private community institutions (such as churches), instead of bonded to the government?

    Who could be more bonded to the government than a person whose shelter, food, and medicine is all provided to him by the government?

    To me, it is entirely in keeping with conservativism to question whether state action is the best way to address a problem.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Here is a solution.

    Outlawry

  • cynical||

    I'm not sure the experiment backs up the article -- simply indicating a criminal background is probably the key signal to an employer. Prison time doesn't help, but I imagine you would get similar results if you got community service or a flogging as a sentence instead. It might be an argument for not criminalizing everything under the sun.

  • ARM||

    The audit study shows that criminal records reduce chances of employment, especially for African Americans. This fits with Western's argument that incarceration detaches offenders from work and other social ties. Western and Pager had applicants declare a felony (noted elsewhere), which nearly always means prison time. It is also increasingly common to receive prison or jail time rather than other punishments, so it is particularly important punishment to study its effects.

    We cannot tell from the study if other forms of punishment would have the same effect. Prison terms may carry particularly stigmatizing meaning to employers compared to community service or fines (which usually mean lesser offenses). In addition, prison removes people from the labor market, which other punishments don't. This may also play a role in employers' thinking.

  • ||

    Keep up the glib, arrogant remarks. In two days, I go to be sentenced in federal court on a felony charge "Theft related to healthcare in an amount exceeding $100". My actual crime? While working as a contract pharmacist in the Indian Health Services, I was contacted one afternoon by a provider in the clinic at which I was stationed. This provider, also a tribal member, stated that one of our EMT's had come into the clinic with his dog, which had ingested a massive amount of D-Con (rat poison). The provider stated the obvious, that we don't normally treat animals, but this EMT was on call, couldn't leave the immediate area, and could find no one to transport his animal 45 miles to the nearest vet's office (no surprise there, as she was bleeding profusely from every orifice at this point, and likely would not have survived transport at any point). The provider asked if I had any injectable vitamin K on hand, the antidote for this poisoning, and, if I did, if I would be willing to bend the rules and dispense it to this EMT so that he might save his companion's life. I did have it in stock, I did the footwork (i.e. figured out the appropriate dose, etc.), dispensed the medication to this fellow with instructions for administration, and thereby became a felon in the eyes of the U.S. federal government. The cost of the medication? $143, enough, the AUSA in SD felt, to qualify me for prosecution under this asinine, nebulous and draconian law. I attempted to reimburse the clinic the following morning, but was rebuffed. For $143 of "misappropriation", the federal government has decided it prudent to ruin my career, my finances, my life, may family's life and any piece of mind or faith in the American system we might have had (which was not much to begin with). The feds will spend roughly $100,000 over 3 years to prove a $143 point, and that's IF I don't wind up in prison for 2 years. I won't know until the day after tomorrow.

    Before you accuse me of being some tree hugging animal activist type, understand the reasoning that went into my decision. On the Pine Ridge reservation, where I was stationed when this occurred, the average life expectancy of a male is 47.5 years. The suicide rate among males age 14 to 22 varies, depending, from FOUR TO TEN TIMES THE NATIONAL AVERAGE. Who knows what might precipitate that outcome in a 23 year old young man? Watching your friend die a horrible and completely preventable death because some bureaucratic asshole wouldn't reach across a counter might do it. I had an ethical obligation to my profession and my patients (the man and his dog), and I acted in good faith and good conscience. And I am destroyed for it.

    Of course there's more (there's always more), but you get the gist.

    The problem isn't just that our government uses prison too freely, it's that the prosecution in this country has been given free rein with respect to who is indicted, and what the penalty on plea bargain will be. If it ever even existed (and I have my doubts), presumed innocence is a cruel joke at this point in the American jurisprudence system. So, before you make your next smug comment, consider. The next person so affected could be you. Or your son or daughter. Do you think it'd be so funny then? Because I stopped laughing when the federal marshals showed up on my front porch 10 months ago and pointed guns at my wife and me. They could've phoned and I would've turned myself in. Not nearly "Cops" enough, I suppose.

    This issue transcends socioeconomic boundaries at this point (to some extent; I may have a college education, but I'm still poor white trash, just like I always have been). And if we don't come to a consensus, find some common ground and get this sort of nonsense under control, there's no hope for this country. No hope at all.

  • cynical||

    Glib or not, you're more likely to find sympathy for being a victim of government assholery here than anywhere, even if it isn't actually expressed. Sorry that they dicked you over. I hope the judge shows you some of the compassion you showed to the dog and its owner.

  • ||

    [My actual crime? While working as a contract pharmacist in the Indian Health Services,]

    I wholeheartedly agree. Throw the fucking book at you.

  • ||

    So black people commit more crimes.. gotcha

  • ||

    I look forward to the day we have real starships. We could just use a planet as a penal colony for the real bad ones (repeats, rapists, killers...).

    Three weeks of survival training, one of those shiny survival blankets and a knife. BOOT! Out the airlocks. Australia turned out ok, and getting rid of of the truly violent types might reduce the strain on the prison system and reduce some of the stigma attached to doing time. After all, the real dangerous guys get shipped off planet. Only petty criminals and white collar types would spend time in the joint.

  • Almanian||

    Al the real dangerous guys end up in government. See strapmonkey's glib post.

    So put congress on another planet? I'm listening...

  • ||

    Sorry. Not trying to be a dick. Just WAY stressed out at the moment. Usually, I'm the glib one. Not presently. I have found a modicum of comfort here over the last few months. It is good to know that not everyone in this country has gone completely off their nut.

    Prison or no, I am a convicted felon at this point, which means I will never own a firearm again (a HUGE deal for me, the gov't. essentially stripped me of a substantial firearm collection left me by my father when he died in July of '09 - the week before the OIG busted me out of South Dakota, and that sucked, then when they came to the house to arrest me in September of last year it was less than a week after we spent 3 days in the hospital with my spouse's father while he lay dying) and I will never vote again (not such a big deal, I'm of the George Carlin school of thought there - the only people who deserve to bitch are those who didn't elect the assholes to office in the first place). To say nothing of trying to find employment at this stage of the game.

    If I had a quarter of a million dollars in the bank, or if I was some senator's wife's second cousin, this would've turned out quite differently. And the sad part is, as much as I've bitched about this here and at home, I'm probably getting off light. I could potentially spend 10 years in prison and $250,000 to repay my $143 debt to society, though I probably won't. And none of this reflects on the people I had the honor of serving during my tenure on the Pine Ridge. I'd still be there if I could.

    "Justice is blind" means something else entirely than that which was taught in school.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    Prison or no, I am a convicted felon at this point, which means I will never own a firearm again (a HUGE deal for me, the gov't. essentially stripped me of a substantial firearm collection left me by my father when he died in July of '09 - the week before the OIG busted me out of South Dakota, and that sucked, then when they came to the house to arrest me in September of last year it was less than a week after we spent 3 days in the hospital with my spouse's father while he lay dying) and I will never vote again (not such a big deal, I'm of the George Carlin school of thought there - the only people who deserve to bitch are those who didn't elect the assholes to office in the first place). To say nothing of trying to find employment at this stage of the game.


    Aside from having the Eighth Circuit or Supreme Court court vacate your conviction, your only remedy would be a presidential pardon.

    I wonder if your lawyer considered a constitutional challenge to the statute asserting a violation of the due process right to privacy a la Griswold .

  • ||

    [I'd still be there if I could.]

    Not repentant?

    What is it with you guys that suck off the public tit anyway?? Whether it's an elected or contracted position to piss away someone else's money it's all the same. I'd give you 20 years just for having that job.

  • ||

    We're even then. I'd give you 20 for being a fucking moron.

  • ||

    Reducing these social costs is an urgent priority.

    For whom? Sure as hell not for me. I stayed in school; I worked hard, I stayed away from stuff that would fuck up my life, I have a good job, I live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood. The ones that don't can kiss my ass. I was an inner-city kid raised in a roach-infested tenement by a single alcoholic mother. The poor downtrodden criminals had the same or even better choices than I did.

    Successful programs now offer transitional jobs to released prisoners, support the children of incarcerated parents, cultivate police-community relations, and send fewer people to prison in the first place. Measures like these reduce the social damage of mass incarceration and promise a sustainable public safety.

    Or here's a novel idea: how about they just not commit crimes? How about a "successful program" where we expect people to be responsible for their choices and accept the consequences of lousy ones themselves?

    Seems the author's idea of a "successful program" is not one that prevents crime (he offers no measures of whether his "successful programs" ever achieve that), but a program that prevents career losers and the kids they've unfortunately burdened the planet with from feeling the consequences of their actions. Not my definition of "successful."

    I really don't give a shit about the "social damage of mass incarceration." You make your bed, you lie in it, you breed, your whole family lies in it. Not my problem.

  • cga1234||

    The more convictions, the more prisons, and the more prison workers, and union members, and municipalities that get relatively high paying government jobs. The real reason we put so many black people in prison? There's a huge constituency for prisons, and blacks are easy.

    Just keep in mind all you law and order types: There was a recent study done that says with the proliferation of new federal government laws and regs, a high percentage of Americans have broken the law within the last year, often unknowingly, at a level which could justify incarceration.
    Vote libertarian. The ass you save may be your own.

  • ||

    Niggers are more violent. They commit more domestic violence and theft than all the other races combined.

  • ||

  • ||

    The more convictions, the more prisons, and the more prison workers, and union members, and municipalities that get relatively high paying government jobs.

    Assuming we stick with government-run prisons, and keep locking people up for "offenses" that cause harm or loss to no one but the offenders.

    The real reason we put so many black people in prison?

    Because they commit more crimes?

  • ||

    At first I thought this article was a joke/parody/Onion thing, but now I get that it's real. The thing that I can never understand with texts like this is whether the author in question (in this case a Harvard prof) is actually that stupid, delusional and geocentric (as opposed to heliocentric), or if it's just a PC guise to keep his/her job. Whatevs. In any case, thanks for the unintentional laffz!

  • nike dunk||

    is good

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