Higher incarceration rates harm social stability, scholars claim

Stanford News Service file photo Bobo

Sociology Professor Lawrence Bobo presented a sober picture of incarceration in the United States during a May 18 panel titled "Inequality and Criminal Justice."

During the last three decades, a series of policy changes have gradually reforged a troublesome linkage between race, crime and the legal system, according to sociology Professor Lawrence Bobo.

"Among the effects of these changes are a deepening crisis of legitimacy for the legal system in the eyes of most black Americans and, arguably, a real threat to the promise of equality before the law," he said. "We as a society have normalized and, for the time being, depoliticized what really should be regarded as a quite remarkable set of social conditions: the emergence of a prison industrial complex."

Bobo, Princeton sociology Professor Bruce Western and Stanford law Professor Robert Weisberg presented a sober picture of incarceration in the United States during a May 18 panel titled "Inequality and Criminal Justice." The discussion opened a conference sponsored by the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences that also included sessions on inequality in America as it relates to health care, gender and race.

In 1980, about 2 million people in the United States were under some kind of criminal justice supervision, said Bobo, the director of Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. By 2000, the figure had jumped to about 6 million—and the United States had become the country that incarcerated its citizens more frequently than any other major western industrialized nation. The jump is largely attributed to the government's ongoing war on drugs. "The vast majority of that is related to our response to nonviolent drug offenses," Bobo said. "The probability of doing serious prison time for nonviolent drug-related offenses increased by 400 percent from 1980 to 1990."

Although only 0.5 percent of the U.S. population is in prison, the figure affects African Americans disproportionately because young, poorly educated black men are incarcerated more frequently than any other social group, Western said. For example, about a third of black male high school dropouts aged 22 to 30 years were in prison or jail in 2000. In contrast, only 3.3 percent of white male dropouts the same age were behind bars.

"Prison time has now become a thoroughly normative life event" for black male dropouts, Western said.

The disparity is exacerbated because blacks are more likely to be imprisoned for crack cocaine convictions than whites, who are more likely to be arrested for powder cocaine-related offenses. Under existing criminal justice policies, possession of crack with intent to sell carries a longer prison term than the same offense involving powder cocaine. "We were struck in our focus group discussions by the depth of animosity to the war on drugs and the sense there was a set of conspiratorial policies," Bobo said, referring to a research project on race, crime and public opinion.

High rates of incarceration also create hidden economic inequality for African Americans, Western said. Usually, joblessness is measured by household surveys that don't count people in prison. If this group were included, he said, the true rate of joblessness among young black men would be about 33 percent. This finding contradicts a popular notion that, during the late 1990s when U.S. unemployment dropped to very low levels, young black men also benefited from this broad economic expansion. In fact, Western explained, the rate of imprisonment soared for this group and, consequently, they were no longer counted in surveys. "Young black men did not receive any benefit in employment from the economic boom of the 1990s," he said. This concealed inequality can be extended to wages, he added: "If low earners withdraw from the labor market through incarceration, average wages may rise because the lower tail of earnings distribution is truncated."

Economic inequality persists after this group is released from prison because poorly skilled ex-felons have difficulty securing stable jobs with prospects for growth. "Because steady employment is an important step to criminal desistance, and incarceration undermines steady employment, incarceration may be a self-defeating strategy for crime control," Western argued. "We're not [giving] people the tools that provide a pathway out of a life of crime."

Since African Americans are more likely to be crime victims than other groups, Bobo said, they are also more likely to clamor for stronger law enforcement, even though most believe that criminal justice policies are biased against them. "I think there is a serious and deepening crisis of legitimacy out there, certainly in the eyes of most African Americans," Bobo said. "It's not yet a complete breakdown or sense of the police as an occupying army, but a conviction that things are not operating as they should and are systematically doing harm to African American communities. The war on drugs is a central element that the system is operating in an unfair manner. This is an important barometer of the overall health of our democratic traditions that the level of legitimacy has fallen so low in response to this new mass incarceration phenomenon."