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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.

By John Sides  |  August 25, 2010; 10:20 AM ET
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Of all of the rights afforded to citizens of the United States, the right to vote is one that should never be taken away. I've yet to hear a good argument for why felons are deprived of it -- let alone former felons in some states. "They've injured society, so they don't get to participate in society" is the rationale I hear most often. But if that were the case, is it acceptable to deprive felons of, say, habeas rights? First Amendment rights? Fourth Amendment rights? Which rights get to stay and which must go? For which crimes? Why felonies and not gross misdemeanors?

Small wonder civic participation is so low among those in contact with the justice system. Oftentimes they have no right to participate.

Posted by: flipdown | August 25, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Nice try John. Matching is not a fool-proof method and cannot fully account for preexisting differences among groups and certainly cannot 'isolate' effects of the variables you mentioned. Control for yes, isolate no. Don't sell this as bulletproof analysis, because it certainly is not.

Posted by: novalifter | August 25, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

It probably runs both ways. People who have lots of trouble with the law tend not to be (in general, not as a rule) the best citizens.

I'd guess people who are harrassed for minor/victimless infractions tend to be better citizens from the get go and are more at risk for becoming jaded with society, and your hardcore violent criminals are going to be bad citizens either way.

Definitely makes sense to quit throwing people into prison for victimless crimes. It's a waste of money, the drug war in pariticular is basically destroying Mexico, and there tends to be a racial bias in enforcement.

By the way, wouldn't the best way to determine the effect of prison on civic attitudes/participation be a survey comparing the attitudes/actions of people prior to and after law enforcement interaction?

Survey a large group of people (say 30,000) with no history of law enforcement interaction, and track how attitudes change overtime as individuals are questioned, arrested, imprisoned, etc. It would take awhile to get definitive results but you'd be able to compare the trend between the two groups with a start point and end point.

By the way, maybe we should incarcerate more people. Trust in government by the people without much interaction with law enforcement seems way too high. (kidding)

Posted by: justin84 | August 25, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure that these studies have adequately identified which way the causation arrow runs. I.e., does contact with the criminal justice system lead to social disaffection, or does social disaffection lead to contact with the criminal justice system? The comparison to illegal drug users who haven't been arrested doesn't necessarily seem informative to me; it could just be that distrust of government and society leads to a range of reckless behavior, including illegal drug use.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 25, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with tomtildrum. The correlation is clear but I don't see any evidence of causation.

Furthermore, even if there was a causal link it doesn't mean that the criminals withdrawl from civic life is a rational response to poor treatment by the system. Its very likely a self centered irrational response that goes along with the personality trait where people can't take responsibility for their own actions.

Posted by: mwemb | August 27, 2010 1:08 AM | Report abuse

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