Is Mass Incarceration Destroying American Communities?

Heather Mac Donald, National Review, June 21, 2016

The spurious claim that blacks are disproportionately imprisoned because of the war on drugs is by now a familiar one. It is sometimes accompanied by an even more audacious argument: namely, that incarceration itself causes crime in black neighborhoods, and therefore constitutes an unjust and disproportionate burden on them because blacks have the highest prison rate. This idea has gained wide currency in the academic world and in anti-incarceration think tanks. Professor Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law School offered a representative version of the theory in a 2003 law review article coauthored with two public-health researchers. Sending black males to prison “weakens the general social control of children and especially adolescents,” Fagan writes. Incarceration increases the number of single-parent households. With adult males missing from their neighborhoods, boys will be more likely to get involved in crime, since they lack proper supervision. The net result: “Incarceration begets more incarceration [in] a vicious cycle.”

A few questions present themselves. How many convicts were living in a stable relationship with the mother (or one of the mothers) of their children before being sent upstate? (Forget even asking about their marriage rate.) What kind of positive guidance for young people comes from men who are committing enough crimes to end up in prison, rather than on probation (an exceedingly high threshold)? Further, if Fagan is right that keeping criminals out of prison and on the streets preserves a community’s social capital, inner cities should have thrived during the 1960s and early 1970s, when prison resources contracted sharply. In fact, New York’s poorest neighborhoods–the subject of Fagan’s analysis–turned around only in the 1990s, when the prison population reached its zenith.

Fagan, like many other criminologists, conflates the effects of prison and crime. Neighborhoods with high incarceration rates suffer disproportionate burdens, he claims. Firms are reluctant to locate in areas where many ex-convicts live, so there are fewer job opportunities. Police pay closer attention to high-incarceration zones, increasing the chance that any given criminal within them will wind up arrested. Thus, incarceration “provides a steady supply of offenders for more incarceration.”

But if business owners think twice about setting up shop in those communities, it’s because they fear crime, not a high concentration of ex-convicts. It’s unlikely that prospective employers even know the population of ex-cons in a neighborhood; what they are aware of is its crime rates. And an employer who hesitates to hire an ex-con is almost certainly reacting to his criminal record even if he has been given community probation instead of prison. Likewise, if the police give extra scrutiny to neighborhoods with many ex-convicts, it’s because ex-cons commit a lot of crime. Finally, putting more criminals on probation rather than sending them to prison–as Fagan and others advocate–would only increase law-enforcement surveillance of high-crime neighborhoods.

This popular “social ecological” analysis of incarceration, as Fagan and other criminologists call it, treats prison like an outbreak of infectious disease that takes over certain communities, felling people on a seemingly random basis. “As the risks of going to jail or prison grow over time for persons living in those areas, their prospects for marriage or earning a living and family-sustaining wage diminish as the incarceration rates around them rise,” Fagan says. This analysis elides the role of individual will. Fagan and others assume that if one lives in a high-incarceration–that is, high-crime–area, one can do little to avoid prison. But even in the most frayed urban communities, plenty of people choose to avoid “the life.” Far from facing diminished marriage prospects, an upstanding, reliable young man in the inner city would be regarded as a valuable catch.


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