Monday, November 12, 2007

The Prison Hockey Stick

I googled Bruce Western to see what I could find after my friend Silja Talvi mentioned him as one of the leading thinkers on the relationship between prisons and inequality. The chart above, which shows the more than 700% increase in incarceration in the US over the past three decades, comes from this site, which has numerous other depressing graphs and statistics that will shock and appall.

This year, Western left Princeton to join the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School, where he will direct the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy. Western argues that sky-rocketing rates of incarceration, particularly among African-American males, exacerbate inequality by dramatically reducing the employment prospects and earning potential of the large numbers of those who have been imprisoned, particularly those who have had felonies. With large numbers of poorly educated men, and increasingly women, removed from the labor market, statistics on wages and unemployment are distorted to look much rosier than they actually are.

This is the structural unemployment issue that seems to be the big elephant in the room in American politics. Why doesn't anyone ever see the thing? All we ever do is describe its parts, and just barely at that.

Western says that the "tough on crime" incarceration strategy may well create more problems than it solves by increasing social inequality and thereby feeding the cycle of desperation and crime. Instead of continually feeding a growing prison-industrial complex, we might want to think about investing more in education, or job training.

What I find most interesting is the timing of the prison boom: the mid-seventies, just as the effects of deindustrialization are hitting American cities everywhere. This is also the time frame for the beginnings of mass homelessness and the growth of the shelter industry, the other strategy for managing large numbers of superfluous people. While it's no secret that there is a revolving door between the shelter and prison systems, it's surprising that more hasn't been said about these two populations and their relationship to the structural employment issue.

Maybe Fannie Mae will give the National Alliance to End Homelessness one of their big fat cooptation grants to study this important issue? Not.

1 comment:

Dr. Wes Browning said...

I went to the njis site and didn't see one of the factors in inequality that I expected to see.

There has to be a secondary effect. In addition to the impact that the higher rates of black incarceration has on the individuals who are imprisoned and come out stigmatized, the fact that blacks receive this stigma more than any others feeds racism and leads to more discrimination for all blacks.

It has even occurred to me that similar secondary effects of favoritism could in principal account for all racism in a society. Imagine a community, a town populated by 9000 whites and 1000 blacks, with epidemic amnesia, no memory of slavery, in which all the citizens start out with roughly equal wealth.

Assume that the police are 90% white, 10% in proportion to the population. Assume that when someone is pulled over for a moving violation, the police officer doing the stop is inclined to let a someone of his own skin color off without a ticket, maybe 50% of the time, but almost never for the others.

Eventually the police could trot out statistics to show that blacks are 72% more likely to get tickets for moving violations. This could be used to justify discrimination off the road as well as racial profiling while driving. What would start as positive discrimination for some would drive negative discrimination toward others.

Favoritism is rarely discussed as a factor in racism, but I think it's very powerful. A perfectly non-racist society can be tipped into racism very easily by the operation of favoritism.