How prisons make bad citizens
by John Sides
It is well known that the percentage of Americans in prison or on parole has increased dramatically. But we know far less about how incarceration -- and interaction with law enforcement generally -- affects political attitudes and behaviors. A new paper (pdf) by political scientists Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman addresses this question.
Weaver and Lerman argue that experience with police and prisons is an important contact -- indeed, perhaps the only contact -- between many citizens and their government. This contact then socializes people to have particular attitudes toward that government. And these attitudes are far from democratic ideals. Consider this graph, drawing on a portion of Weaver and Lerman's data:
It shows the apparent effect of contact with the criminal justice system on whether people are registered to vote, actually vote or participate in at least one civic organization. People are far less likely to do any of these things as their contact with police and prisons ranges from no contact to being questioned, arrested, convicted, serving time in prison or serving at least one year in prison ("serious time").
Meanwhile, distrust in all levels of government increases as contact with the criminal justice system increases:
This may not seem surprising. But it is actually important to prove. People who end up in prison could already be less likely to vote and more distrusting of government. If so, then contact with the criminal justice system may not cause anything. Weaver and Lerman address this possibility in several ways. They control for a range of other factors, including those that make individuals more likely to commit crimes. They also isolate an already "criminal" population (illegal drug users) and then compare those who have been in contact with the criminal justice system to those who have not. A statistical technique called matching accounts for other preexisting differences between two groups, isolating any effect of arrest, prison, etc. In all of these different analyses, the same gaps in participation and trust emerge.
Weaver and Lerman conclude:
If we take seriously the results presented here, they suggest that those with contact at every level of criminal supervision withdraw from political life – they are not in civic groups, they are less likely to express their political voice in elections, they are less involved in their communities. Thus, the carceral state carries deep implications for who is included and how they are included in the polity.
There is renewed interest in some quarters for reforming prisons and promoting both alternatives to incarceration and rehabilitation of the incarcerated. Weaver and Lerman's study makes clear that whatever benefits might flow from reform, some will likely be political: a more engaged citizenry, even among felons.
John Sides is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University. He blogs at the Monkey Cage.
August 25, 2010; 10:20 AM ET
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