Incarceration and Collateral Damage: Prof. Traci Burch to Speak at Marquette on Nov. 29

We live in an era of unprecedented mass incarceration. Since the mid-1970′s, America’s imprisonment rate has quintupled, reaching heights otherwise unknown in the western world. We embarked on this incarceration binge with little understanding of what impact it would have on families and communities. The past fifteen years, however, have witnessed a great outpouring of research and writing on the collateral effects of imprisonment. Those who work in the criminal-justice system should be – and I think increasingly are – knowledgeable about the real impact that their work has on the lives of the many human beings who are connected to each incarcerated person.

Practitioners (and students) who would like to learn more about this important issue will have a wonderful opportunity to do so in two weeks, when Professor Traci Burch of Northwestern University comes to Marquette Law School to speak on the “The Collateral Consequences of Incarceration.” Here is the description:

Dr. Burch will discuss the effects of mass incarceration on families and communities on Thursday, November 29th. This talk is based in part on her forthcoming book, Punishment and Participation: How Criminal Convictions Threaten American Democracy (University of Chicago Press). Dr. Burch will discuss how criminal justice policies shape disease, crime, domestic partner relationships, children and voting participation in low-income communities.

This event is co-sponsored by Marquette’s Department of Political Science, Law School, Klinger College of Arts and Sciences, Office of the Vice Provost for Research, Department of Social and Cultural Sciences, and Institute for Urban Life.

The talk will begin at 5:15, with an informal reception and light refreshments to follow. Additional information and a link to register for the talk are here.

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Where Do Inmates Live?

Among the more unsavory provisions of the U.S. Constitution was the three-fifths compromise, which gave southern states enhanced representation in Congress based on their slave populations, although the slaves were, of course, entirely disenfranchised.  Reminiscent of this arrangement, prison inmates are typically counted as residents of the places in which they are held, which can boost the legislative clout and government funding that are allocated to the outlying districts where prisons tend to be located.  This legislative clout, in turn, may be used to support penal laws that help to ensure prison populations remain large, thus reinforcing the economic and political advantages that come with hosting correctional facilities. 

There seems something troublingly unbalanced about this.   Since they generally do not have the right to vote and receive few if any benefits from local agencies, perhaps inmates should not be “counted” at all for these purposes.  I see, though, that New York, Maryland, and Delaware have all recently adopted a different sort of reform, now counting inmates as residents of their home districts (which tend to be economically disadvantaged urban centers).  This may be a better way of doing things than current arrangements, although I wonder if this creates perverse incentives for home districts to prefer keeping large numbers of their residents in prison.  A better structural reform would be ending the practice of disenfranchising felons; then it might not matter so much where they are counted as living.

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Mass Incarceration and the Great Shift Right

I’ve just finished Heather Ann Thompson’s new article, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” 97 J. Am. Hist. 703 (2010).  This purports to be a first effort by an historian to write about the place of mass incarceration in recent American social and political history.  For the most part, the article strikes me as a modest repackaging of work done by sociologists and legal scholars; I don’t see much here that carries us beyond the contributions of folks like Jonathan Simon, Jim Whitman, and David Garland.  Still, students of mass incarceration may find something of interest in Thompson’s efforts to link mass incarceration to three of the most important phenomena in postwar American history: urban decay, the collapse of the labor movement, and the breakup of the New Deal political coalition and ascendance of the right.

I found the latter discussion especially thought-provoking.  Although it is well-recognized that Republicans have emphasized law-and-order themes since at least 1968 and that the era of mass incarceration has also been an era of conservative domination in national politics, Thompson challenges the conventional view that mass incarceration was a result of the right’s political success.  She argues that liberal Democrats, no less than conservative Republicans, embraced law-and-order themes in the 1960’s.  President Johnson, for instance, made crime a major political issue well before the pivotal ’68 election. Thompson thus suggests that mass incarceration might have proceeded even if Democrats had retained their preeminent position after 1968.

Thompson contends that mass incarceration may have been as much a cause of conservative ascendance as its result.


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New Report on Felon Disenfranchisement

The Sentencing Project has a new report on changes in state laws regarding felon disenfranchisement since 1997.  Here are highlights:

  • Nine states either repealed or amended lifetime disenfranchisement laws;
  • Three states expanded voting rights to persons under community supervision (probation and parole);
  • Eight states eased the restoration process for persons seeking to have their right to vote restored after completing their sentence; and
  • Three states improved data and information sharing.
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