Mass Incarceration

Christopher Wildeman

in Criminology

ISBN: 9780195396607
Published online April 2012 | | DOI:
Mass Incarceration

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Whether called mass incarceration, mass imprisonment, the prison boom, the carceral state, or hyperincarceration, this phenomenon refers to the current American experiment in incarceration, which is defined by comparatively and historically extreme rates of imprisonment and by the concentration of imprisonment among young, African American men living in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage. Although there is scholarly consensus about how to define mass incarceration, there is some level of disagreement over its causes and consequences. Some say it deters and incapacitates; others say that it weakens poor families, keeping them socially marginalized. While some have advanced a functionalist argument as to the causes of mass imprisonment, suggesting that it is the fourth “peculiar institution” for the control of African Americans—following slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto—others have argued that a combination of cultural shifts, political realignments, changes in job prospects for low-skilled men, and perhaps most importantly, legal changes have driven the dramatic increase and absolute disparity in rates of imprisonment over the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The massive increases in imprisonment might be justifiable if public safety were dramatically improved. Yet despite some accounts suggesting quite beneficial effects of incarceration on crime rates, the majority of the evidence now suggests either that incarceration’s effects on crime are not nearly as large as once suspected or that the crime-fighting benefits of imprisonment have so diminished over the last few years of the 20th century and the early 21st century that incarceration is now a much less effective method for crime control than it was before the 1990s. Given the high rates of imprisonment and racial disparity in imprisonment, incarceration may be significant as a generator of social inequality. It is this possibility that recent research considers, focusing on effects on the individuals who cycle through the system and on those who are attached to them—their communities, families, and friends. Despite substantial obstacles to causal inference (a point stressed in many of these readings), much of this research suggests that mass incarceration has the potential to substantially increase social inequality, because it is unequally distributed and because it has negative effects on prisoners and their social correlates. Although much of the research considers the consequences of imprisonment for individuals in nations with lower overall rates of incarceration (most notably the United Kingdom and The Netherlands), the majority of the works cited here focus on effects in the United States, where incarceration levels are high.

Article.  6724 words. 

Subjects: Criminology and Criminal Justice ; Criminal Justice ; Criminology

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