Posted on August 18, 2010

Most Prisoners Come From Few Neighborhoods

Bruce Bower, Science News, August 17, 2010

Crime rates have dropped in the United States over the past 15 years, yet prison populations have soared. The U.S. incarceration rate now exceeds that of other industrialized nations by five times or more, with almost 2.3 million people behind bars and another 5 million on parole or probation.

A major reason for this apparent paradox has gone largely ignored, according to Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson. Certain disadvantaged sections of cities have acted as incarceration hot spots in the midst of a general downturn in crime, Sampson reported at a press conference August 16 at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.

Ballooning incarceration rates in these poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, especially among young men, create a sense of collective cynicism and fatalism that fuels further misconduct and imprisonment, Sampson said. He and sociology graduate student Charles Loeffler of Harvard describe their findings, based on surveys and crime-data analyses of Chicago neighborhoods, in the summer Daedalus. That issue contains research and essays inspired by an American Academy of Arts and Sciences task force on mass incarceration.

“Mass incarceration in the United States has a deep local concentration in relatively few disadvantaged communities,” Sampson asserted.


Chicago crime data for 1990 to 1995 show that a large majority of prison and jail populations came from two poor, black sections of the city, Sampson and Loeffler found. During that time, overall rates of crime and violence declined in Chicago while incarceration rates rose in those two areas.

Following these encouraging crime reductions, Chicago officials closed massive public housing units in the two high-crime, high-incarceration areas because they were considered breeding grounds for drug dealing and violence.


Interviews of almost 8,000 Chicago residents between 1995 and 2002 identified intense cynicism about the legal system and hopelessness about future prospects among residents of the city’s incarceration hot spots.

Teenagers and children expressed some of the grimmest attitudes. “Many kids said they didn’t expect to live past age 25 or to avoid ending up in prison,” Sampson said.

Researchers need to focus on how the concentration of incarceration within certain poor neighborhoods undermines the quality of life for everyone living there, he added.

Not all poor neighborhoods become incarceration hot spots, Sampson emphasized. {snip}