Like corn and computers, convicts have become commodities in America, produced en masse in concentrated locations. But America hasn't always produced bumper crops of inmates, sociologist Bruce Western explained last summer at the annual American Sociological Association convention, speaking with fellow Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson to highlight a special issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The issue presented the work of 15 scholars — and two poets — who examined America's culture of mass incarceration and its effects on neighborhoods that generate exceptional numbers of felons.
The authors presented a plethora of sad incarceration statistics, along with some policy prescriptions that, they suggest, could slowly change the numbers. Until the mid-1970s, the U.S. incarceration rate hovered in percentages that wouldn't be out of place in Western Europe. But by 2001 (i.e., before the fears of 9/11 could be reflected) the incarceration rate here was 11 times that of Denmark and more than five times the rate in a more natural comparison nation, the United Kingdom.
As has been remarked voluminously before, the lock-up rate for racial minorities has shown remarkable growth in recent decades. For African Americans born just after World War II, one out of eight who didn't attend college has been locked up. For those born in the late 1970s, the rate is starkly higher — a bit above one out of three. And for African Americans who drop out of high school, the likelihood of incarceration is currently 70 percent.
"For this group," Western says, "going to prison has become an utterly normal life event." That means incarceration has also entered the lives of all the parents, spouses, children and neighbors of those convicts.
High incarceration rates reflect a tougher-on-crime mentality that, presumably, would result in safer streets. And crime rates have gone down as incarceration rates have increased - but not dramatically, Western says. "It's had only a modest effect on crime reduction at a very high fiscal cost and social cost," he says. Western says most of the crime reduction measured in the 1990s was attributable to other factors, including demographics - the pool of young people most often arrested shrank — changes in the drug trade, and better policing.
Western's colleague, Sampson, and another Harvard sociologist, Charles Loeffler, have examined the localized effect of increased incarceration in a prime area for growing inmates: poor neighborhoods in Chicago. They discovered that even when incarceration rates plateaued in the 1990s, the crime rate kept falling, a statistic that argues against the knee-jerk linkage often made between imprisonment and public safety.
On the other hand, it is clear that locking up large numbers of people has had a corrosive, cyclical effect. "Incarceration harms quality of life," Sampson says, "which creates incarceration."
These researchers don't propose that society get soft on crime, exactly. Incarceration is just one response to community problems, they say, and one that should be assessed rationally alongside other possible reactions, including programs that offer communities with untoward numbers of prison inmates better opportunities for education, jobs, drug treatment and housing.
"Let's do a cost-benefit analysis," Sampson says. "A positive effect here, a negative effect here — what's the net?" And the analysis needs to be analytical, not anecdotal. Social programs that don't automatically lock up offenders can be easily torpedoed by occasional but high-profile crimes committed by clients. "It's very asymmetric politics," Sampson says. "It only takes one failure to derail a program." Incarceration, on the other hand, never seems to lose its political luster, despite its many and obvious failures.
But what about those who do transgress?
The academics suggest "swift, certain but moderate sanctions" for parole and probation violators, and a similar approach to criminal newbies. "The underlying severity [or punishment] isn't a big deterrent," Western says, "but its certainty is."