Mass Incarceration and American Democracy

The United States imprisons and monitors a huge number of its citizens, but not equally. Black men with low levels of formal education are more likely to have run-ins with police, go to prison, and remain subject to official supervision and loss of rights even after prison stints are completed. New research probes the adverse impact on families, children, communities, and local economies – and reveals how American democracy also suffers from draconian and unequal criminal justice.

A new volume of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science called "Detaining Democracy? Criminal Justice and American Civic Life" has been assembled and edited by SSN members Christopher Wildeman, Jacob S. Hacker, and Vesla M. Weaver of Yale University. Based on articles in the volume, new SSN briefs highlight fresh new scholarship about the criminal justice system and inequalities in America. As Joe Soss sums up in his overview brief, contributors present important research "showing that the era of expansive policing, custody, and confinement has been politically harmful for poor and black Americans, undermining their prospects for constructive citizenship and undermining faith in U.S. public institutions." In cycles of severe and skewed punishment with adverse consequences that reverberate widely in U.S. society, "the voiceless are further disenfranchised, the skeptical grow distrustful, and inequality intensifies."

Impact on Children, Families, and Communities

Poor black men feel the brunt of mass incarceration, but romantic partners, children, and other family members are also profoundly affected, perpetuating poverty and trouble with the law across generations.

> The Prison Boom and the Increased Risk of Homelessness for Black Children in the United States
Christopher Wildeman, Yale University

> What Scholars Know – And Need to Learn – About the Social Effects of Mass Incarceration
Kristin Turney, University of California, Irvine

Distrust and Civic Disengagement

A massive imprisoned population and intense criminal justice scrutiny for some communities and segments of the population spawns distrust in the law and alienation from community life and democratic politics. In addition, many former prisoners have their voting rights restricted, in some states even after they have completed probation.

> Mass Imprisonment and Growing Distrust in the Law
Christopher Muller, Harvard University

> People with Family Members in Prison are Less Likely to be Engaged American Citizens
Hedwig Lee, University of Washington, Lauren Porter, Kent State University, and Megan Comfort, University of California, San Francisco

> How Mass Incarceration Undermines America's Democratic Way of Life
Glenn C. Loury, Brown University

> How America's Criminal Justice System Educates Citizens
Benjamin Justice, Rutgers University, and Tracey L. Meares, Yale Law School

> The Struggle to Restore Voting Rights for Former Prisoners – And a Telling Success in Rhode Island
Michael Leo Owens, Emory University

Is the Tide Changing?

The prison population has begun to declining in recent years, and in many states, conservatives are joining bipartisan quests for new forms of justice, supervision, and rehabilitation that could assure community safety and equal justice with less reliance on bloated and costly punitive institutions.

> How Unlikely Alies Can Roll Back America's Prison Boom
David Dagan and Steven M. Teles, Johns Hopkins University