Politics & Policy

Is Mass Incarceration Destroying American Communities?

Putting criminals in prison makes America’s streets safer.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is adapted from Heather Mac Donald’s new book, The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe.

The spurious claim that blacks are disproportionately imprisoned because of the war on drugs is by now a familiar one. It is sometimes accompanied by an even more audacious argument: namely, that incarceration itself causes crime in black neighborhoods, and therefore constitutes an unjust and disproportionate burden on them because blacks have the highest prison rate. This idea has gained wide currency in the academic world and in anti-incarceration think tanks. Professor Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law School offered a representative version of the theory in a 2003 law review article coauthored with two public-health researchers. Sending black males to prison “weakens the general social control of children and especially adolescents,” Fagan writes. Incarceration increases the number of single-parent households. With adult males missing from their neighborhoods, boys will be more likely to get involved in crime, since they lack proper supervision. The net result: “Incarceration begets more incarceration [in] a vicious cycle.”

A few questions present themselves. How many convicts were living in a stable relationship with the mother (or one of the mothers) of their children before being sent upstate? (Forget even asking about their marriage rate.) What kind of positive guidance for young people comes from men who are committing enough crimes to end up in prison, rather than on probation (an exceedingly high threshold)? Further, if Fagan is right that keeping criminals out of prison and on the streets preserves a community’s social capital, inner cities should have thrived during the 1960s and early 1970s, when prison resources contracted sharply. In fact, New York’s poorest neighborhoods — the subject of Fagan’s analysis — turned around only in the 1990s, when the prison population reached its zenith.

Fagan, like many other criminologists, conflates the effects of prison and crime. Neighborhoods with high incarceration rates suffer disproportionate burdens, he claims. Firms are reluctant to locate in areas where many ex-convicts live, so there are fewer job opportunities. Police pay closer attention to high-incarceration zones, increasing the chance that any given criminal within them will wind up arrested. Thus, incarceration “provides a steady supply of offenders for more incarceration.”

But if business owners think twice about setting up shop in those communities, it’s because they fear crime, not a high concentration of ex-convicts. It’s unlikely that prospective employers even know the population of ex-cons in a neighborhood; what they are aware of is its crime rates. And an employer who hesitates to hire an ex-con is almost certainly reacting to his criminal record even if he has been given community probation instead of prison. Likewise, if the police give extra scrutiny to neighborhoods with many ex-convicts, it’s because ex-cons commit a lot of crime. Finally, putting more criminals on probation rather than sending them to prison — as Fagan and others advocate — would only increase law-enforcement surveillance of high-crime neighborhoods.

Fagan and others assume that if one lives in a high-incarceration — that is, high-crime — area, one can do little to avoid prison.

This popular “social ecological” analysis of incarceration, as Fagan and other criminologists call it, treats prison like an outbreak of infectious disease that takes over certain communities, felling people on a seemingly random basis. “As the risks of going to jail or prison grow over time for persons living in those areas, their prospects for marriage or earning a living and family-sustaining wage diminish as the incarceration rates around them rise,” Fagan says. This analysis elides the role of individual will. Fagan and others assume that if one lives in a high-incarceration — that is, high-crime — area, one can do little to avoid prison. But even in the most frayed urban communities, plenty of people choose to avoid “the life.” Far from facing diminished marriage prospects, an upstanding, reliable young man in the inner city would be regarded as a valuable catch.

No one doubts that having a criminal record — whether it results in community probation or prison — is a serious handicap. People convicted of crimes compete for jobs at a clear disadvantage with those who have stayed crime-free. But for all the popularity of the view that the system is to blame, it’s not hard to find dissenters who believe that individuals are responsible for the decision to break the law. “My position is not hard,” says public-housing manager Matthew Kennedy. “You don’t have to do that crime.” Kennedy supported President Bill Clinton’s controversial 1996 “one-strike” rule for public housing, which allowed housing authorities to evict drug dealers and other lawbreaking tenants on their first offense. “I’m trying to protect the good people in my community,” Kennedy explains. “A criminal record is preventable. It’s all on you.” Kennedy has no truck with the argument that it is unfair to send ex-offenders back to prison for violations of their parole conditions, such as staying away from their gang associates and hangouts. “Where do they take responsibility for their own actions?” he wonders. “You’ve been told, ‘Don’t come back to this community.’ Why would you come back here? You’ve got to change your ways, change the habits that got you in there in the first place.”

Though you’d never know it from reading the academic literature, some people in minority communities even see prison as potentially positive for individuals as well as for communities. “I don’t buy the idea that there’s no sense to prison,” says Clyde Fulford, a 54-year-old lifelong resident of the William Mead Homes, a downtown Los Angeles housing project. Having raised his children to be hardworking, law-abiding citizens, Fulford is a real role model for his neighborhood, not the specious drug-dealing kind posited by the “social ecological” theory of incarceration. “I know a lot of people who went to prison,” Fulford says. “A lot changed they life for the better. Prison was they wake-up call.” Is prison unavoidable and thus unfair? “They knew they was going to pay. It’s up to that person.” What if the prisoners hadn’t been locked up? “Many would be six feet under.”

— Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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