High incarceration may be more harmful than high crime

Yale researcher: High incarceration may be more harmful than high crime.

Recent events show that black lives in Ferguson, Staten Island and beyond are insecure, burdened by the police surveillance and criminal justice involvement that are most heavily concentrated in neighborhoods of color.

Take Baltimore, for instance, which confines more of its residents than any other major city in the nation. The rate of incarceration tracks residents' level of income, defining entire neighborhoods in a U-shape that separates the downtown from the neighborhoods of Sandtown-Winchester and Middle East and Central Park Heights. Every year, about 6 percent of Baltimorians journey through Central Booking.

Let us talk a little about what it means to live in a Baltimore neighborhood pocked by the constant removal and return of one's neighbors and friends. Children routinely experience the sudden disappearance of a guardian. One in five young Baltimore men is a criminal justice system veteran, and many are consigned to inconsistent work because even a misdemeanor on their record makes finding a decent job a little bit like winning the lottery: The chances are not good.

There is something even more concerning about this situation and its impact on our democracy. Criminal justice interventions transform how people understand their government, their status in the democratic community and their civic habits. In these neighborhoods, a totally different model of citizenship emerges. In my recent book "Arresting Citizenship," (University of Chicago Press, 2014), coauthored with Amy Lerman, we call it "Custodial Citizenship."

Those individuals who have exposure to such criminal justice encounters exhibit several unique and concerning features. Compared with their peers, custodial citizens are less likely to believe that they are full and equal citizens, to subscribe to the so-called American Dream, to think they can have a say over what takes place in their nation and have government respond to their needs, and to take part in voting for representatives.

For example, one survey of youth and young adults asked whether they agreed that "leaders in government care very little about people like me." Only 36 percent of youth absent contact with criminal justice agreed, but fully three-quarters of the youth who had been convicted agreed with the statement.

Custodial citizens, we came to realize, had learned that government was not concerned with providing for the common good, but was instead mostly interested in keeping people like them in line. They had concluded that they were not citizens worthy of equal respect and that their best strategy was to remain invisible in political life.

Where many Americans may simply not have the interest, time or money to be involved in politics, custodial citizens spoke of their records and experiences with criminal justice as a key indicator of their diminished, stigmatized status. It was not only what they did not have that made them powerless, it was who they were. An otherwise upbeat Trenton, N.J., man named Trevor put it bluntly: "Once you incarcerated, they might as well go get a big island and just put you on that island, 'cause you don't matter."

Normal levels of police contact with citizens seem to have many positive effects — the communities are safer and more trusting, and residents may come to feel the government is accountable in providing public safety. But when communities experience high levels of imprisonment, the effects reverse. Studies have found that high incarceration, not high crime, may actually pose the greatest harm to community stability by weakening the social and civic fabric and undermining the legitimacy of the state.

Worse still, residents may become less willing to seek out assistance from government at all. In areas of New York that experienced high rates of police stops without arrests, people made fewer calls to local government to report things like potholes and broken streetlights. Finally, when many people who can't (or won't) participate in the democratic process come from just a few communities, places like Central Park Heights and Cherry Hill, those populations lose political power and clout.

The expansion of criminal justice into the neighborhoods of our fellow citizens here in Baltimore and elsewhere is not just an expensive way to deal with crime. It destabilizes communities socially and economically. Most importantly, it exposes people and families to bad lessons in citizenship, threatening to derail democracy itself.

Vesla Weaver is an assistant professor of political science at Yale University. Her email is vesla.weaver@yale.edu.

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