Incarceration matters

In “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color” (Issues, Fall 2015), Robert D. Crutchfield and Gregory A. Weeks cite “coercive mobility” as a key driver of increased incarceration rates in communities of color. As a codeveloper of this concept, I think some additional background may be informative.

Back in the late 1990s, when Dina Rose and I were studying the Tallahassee neighborhoods that gave rise to the coercive mobility thesis, we spent many a day talking to residents of neighborhoods where more than 2% of the residents (of all ages) went to prison every year. These places were almost all black, and they included some of the most historic black neighborhoods in the South. Our suspicion was that these high rates of “prison cycling,” moving people in and out of prison, destabilized neighborhood life and disrupted informal social control, ultimately increasing the level of crime. It was not a very popular thesis among criminologists at the time.

So we were shocked to learn how much the people who live in high incarceration places already got it. We heard resonant themes from the residents there. “Put the bad guys in jail, but leave my brother (cousin/nephew) alone; he only needs some help.” Or, “Everyone knows that sending these men to prison doesn’t do anything good for the neighborhood; they all come back anyway, worse off than when they left.” Or—most chilling—“White people would never stand for this if it was going on in their neighborhoods.”

The idea that mass incarceration damages neighborhoods does not seem so controversial today. We know a lot about the negative impact of incarceration—on children of sending their male parent to prison, on lifetime earnings of people who go to prison, on job prospects for those with prison histories, on beliefs in the legitimacy of the law for people who repeatedly encounter the coercive state, and on and on. It does not take a leap of logic to predict that places where a large number of people go to prison and then come back, persistently over decades, would be places devoid of economic capacity, dominated by broken family relationships, where many people grow up with deep resentment for the state. In fact, to make any other prediction would be the social science equivalent of denying global warming. Why did we do it?

It is hard, then, not to conclude that in the end this is mostly about race. That there are no white neighborhoods where generations of men have been cycled through prison is the most telling point of all, isn’t it? White Americans use drugs as much or more than black Americans, but go to prison at a fraction of the rate. The drug war is the advance guard for the mass incarceration movement, spreading itself across all forms of criminal involvement, increasing both the rate of imprisonment and the length of imprisonment following criminal conviction. The writers who today analyze U.S. penal policy as a natural extension of a history of slavery, Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates as leading examples, shame us. But they also call us to collective action.

Here is the simple truth: We made this policy of mass incarceration and we can unmake it. If by some precious magic every penal law passed since 1976, in the 50 states and federal system, were taken off the books, and we immediately reverted to the laws of 1976, we would in a short time have the incarceration rate of 1976. By world standards, we would become “normal.” It is that simple.

Todd Clear

School of Criminal Justice

Rutgers University – Newark

Robert Crutchfield and Gregory Weeks highlight a critical dimension of the problem with mass incarceration: its disproportionate impact on communities of color. The authors provide a careful overview of the causes and consequences of the massively disproportionate imprisonment of people of color. The authors bring substantial expertise to the topic and their case is compelling; I heartily recommend their proposals be taken seriously.

I do wish to add what I see as a critical piece of context for understanding the problem, which also highlights the major barriers facing real reform. The context is this: the racially disproportionate nature of mass incarceration is no accident. It is the product of a series of public policies designed to privilege whites and disadvantage blacks—from slavery, convict leasing, and legalized segregation and discrimination, to legislative and sentencing policies targeting street and drug crimes (see Loïc Wacquant’s “new peculiar institution” and Michelle Alexander’s “new Jim Crow”).

This context is crucial for understanding the case laid out by the authors. For instance, they distinguish “warranted” disproportionate incarceration (that explained by differential offending) from “unwarranted” (that not based on differential offending). However, the disparities in offending are not the result of fundamental racial differences, but instead are rooted in socioeconomic disparities. So at best this represents a case of punishing racial minorities for being poor, but looks even worse when acknowledging the roots of these inequalities in the historical and contemporary mistreatment of people of color.

In this light, the compounding effects of incarceration on future generations—a phenomena the authors highlight—is especially pernicious: that harms to people of color caused by prior public policies are aggravated and perpetuated by existing policies.

This context also illuminates the potential barriers to reform. The authors review multiple possible solutions, most importantly and simply to “reduce the number of people going to prisons and create a more just society.” However, support for punitive polices and opposition to policies designed to ameliorate inequalities are both rooted in a racial animus toward racial minorities (an association that persists, as I found in recent work on implicit and explicit animus).

It is not surprising, then, that “states have shown little appetite for directly addressing the issue of racial disproportionality,” as noted in another article in this volume, “Reducing Incarceration Rates: When Science Meets Political Realities,” by Tony Fabelo and Michael Thompson. Unfortunately, prior attempts to address racial inequalities with race-neutral policies have not been unambiguously successful—whites are often better positioned to take advantage of such policies. Further, failing to acknowledge the racial history gives cover to those seeking to protect the racial hierarchy by deemphasizing group distinctions but then ignoring historical inequalities that leave members of groups differentially prepared to succeed (a strategy described by Mary Jackman, among others). Addressing the very real problems described by Crutchfield and Weeks, then, will require a fundamental reframing of the problem, one that includes an honest accounting of the nation’s racial history.

Kevin Drakulich

Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice

Northeastern University

The massive growth in imprisonment during the era of mass incarceration, accompanied by soaring correctional costs, has recently led to bipartisan interest in reforming state and federal prison systems. In “Reducing Incarceration Rates: When Science Meets Political Realities,” Fabelo and Thompson of the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSGJC) share their experiences in working with states to reduce correctional spending. And they rightly emphasize that despite the consensus for reform, significant challenges remain. While the work being done by the CSGJC and the Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew) to achieve broad correctional reform is both critical and long overdue, there are four main points I think are worth making about their article and, more generally, the decarceration debate.

First, the CSGJC and Pew should be commended for grounding their work in an empirical, data-driven approach, which is a welcome alternative to policy recommendations that are too often based on emotion or “gut instinct.” Conducting extensive, descriptive analyses of multiagency data, however, is not necessarily tantamount to “science.” The scientific method involves forming hypotheses, designing experiments, collecting and analyzing data, rejecting (or not rejecting) hypotheses, and, later on, testing the reproducibility of results. Moreover, the publication of scientific research generally passes through the filter of a “blind” peer-review process. The state-level correctional analyses that the CSGJC and Pew have been conducting are clearly preferable to basing policy decisions on anecdotal evidence, but the degree to which their work has been scientific is debatable.

Second, providing states with technical assistance in analyzing data may be a little like putting the cart before the horse because, as Fabelo and Thompson suggest, most states lack the information technology infrastructure to accommodate data-driven policymaking. Rather than earmarking millions of dollars in appropriations for data analysis assistance, helping states upgrade and modernize their criminal justice information systems may be a far better use of federal funding in the future.

Third, one consideration that often gets lost in the decarceration discussion is that prisons don’t have to be criminogenic. Unfortunately, this is often the case, because many state prisoners are “warehoused” insofar as they don’t participate in any programming during their confinement. Yet, warehousing prisoners is at odds with the evidence on what works with offenders, which shows that there are a number of effective correctional interventions that deliver a favorable return on investment. Limiting use of prisons should remain a focus, but so should efforts to make them more effective when they are needed.

Finally, although many people acknowledge that the increased use of prisons during the late 20th century likely contributed, at least to some degree, to the crime drop that began in the 1990s, there is less consensus on the precise extent of this contribution or the point at which the costs of imprisonment exceed its benefits. As the pendulum continues its swing in favor of decarceration, it is critical that we be able to assess the impact of decarceration strategies on prison beds saved and, more importantly, on public safety in general. After all, if decarceration lowers correctional costs but does not maintain public safety, we will run the risk of dampening enthusiasm for prison reform.

Grant Duwe

Director, Research and Evaluation

Minnesota Department of Corrections

Protecting global diversity

In “Technologies for Conserving Biodiversity in the Anthropocene” (Issues, Fall 2015), John O’Brien provides an engaging overview of the technologies available to address global biodiversity loss.

Selecting appropriate technologies can overwhelm, particularly for those with little expertise in computational science or engineering. An article titled “Emerging Technologies to Conserve Biodiversity,” published in October 2015 in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, which we coauthored with colleagues from the academic, commercial, and nonprofit sectors, recognizes this, and identifies key technological challenge areas that must be addressed.

Beyond our bedazzlement with new technologies, some difficult issues come into focus. For example, to what extent are the Sirens of technology distracting us from the voyage toward solutions for pressing conservation challenges?

Consider the on-going buzz around use of new genetic technologies to bring back extinct species from museum or other preserved specimens. This is, quite simply, an economic and academic dead-end. A few resurrected individuals from a tiny gene pool, in diminishing habitat, and under continued threat of re-extinction, would be, at best, expensive living museum specimens.

New technologies are often fragile, yet if we are to deploy them effectively they must work on a demanding, usually rural and remote front line, often without power, parts or servicing back-up, or technical expertise. Drones have the potential to revolutionize data collection, as do smartphones, but perhaps the biggest challenge in their deployment is making them robust to local conditions and user-friendly for local stakeholders.

The race to engage technology also risks masking the nascent issue of ethics in conservation. For example, the rush to attach instrumentation to animals may cause neglect of ethical considerations. While tags are becoming ever smaller, adoption rates are increasing rapidly. Unfortunately, examination and reporting of negative impacts (including capture mortality, failed transmitters, injuries, reduced animal ranging, and behavioral and physiological changes) are given low priority. These impacts can also skew data and render new technologies unfit for purpose. Investment in noninvasive technologies will perhaps yield more “bang for the buck” for monitoring, and benefits will accrue to local communities that are better able to manage them.

Ultimately, communities and careful consideration will carry the day. At the development level, academia, nongovernmental organizations, technology corporations, and professional societies should forge symbiotic interdisciplinary groups. At the deployment level, professional conservationists must work with local stakeholders to design systems to jointly deploy accessible, cost-effective, and sustainable technologies.

Technology has huge potential to deliver tools that will help us to reduce the rates of biodiversity loss. While baseline ecological data will remain central to the development of effective conservation strategies, rapidly unfolding threats now demand immediate remediation. We must prioritize technologies to ameliorate human-wildlife conflict (3,000 incidents have been reported in Namibia alone in the past 24 months), the decimation of endangered species for products, and rampant habitat destruction, before there is nothing left to monitor.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential if we are to quell these growing fires. Let us select, develop, integrate, and deploy the brightest and best technologies for the job, but always keeping our hearts and minds on the pulse of the planet.

Stuart Pimm

Doris Duke Professor of Conservation Ecology

Duke University

Zoe Jewell, Sky Alibhai

Founders and directors


Public role in reviewing gene editing

In “CRISPR Democracy: Gene Editing and the Need for Inclusive Deliberation” (Issues, Fall 2015), Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut, and Krishanu Saha argue that the 1975 Asilomar summit is an unsuitable model for evaluating emerging science and technology. They maintain that although review by researchers and other experts is a necessary part of deliberation about science policy and practice, it is insufficient. In a democracy, members of the public should have a role in such deliberation.

I agree wholeheartedly. Gene editing is just one of many contemporary scientific developments that ought to receive more public consideration than they have. Examples of such developments include gene drives, human-animal chimeras, and dual-use research. To date, policy deliberation and debate on these topics has been conducted primarily by expert groups composed of scientists, bioethicists, and other professionals.

Not surprisingly, scientists tend to favor narrow limits on research. As Jasanoff, Hurlbut, and Saha observe, participants in the Asilomar summit adopted a restrictive definition of risk that greatly influenced subsequent formal regulation. The approach has contributed to ongoing controversies over recombinant DNA (rDNA) applications, such as genetically modified crops. It has also contributed to public mistrust about some rDNA applications.

The challenge is to design and conduct a process that allows meaningful, ongoing public engagement. As a scholar focused on bioethics and policy, I have spent my entire career as an outsider in medicine and science. Having participated as an outsider in many research policy activities, I know how difficult it can be to achieve truly inclusive deliberation.

A number of conditions must be met for successful deliberation among people from widely different backgrounds to occur. Both experts and members of the public need adequate education and preparation for the relevant activity. Participants must represent diverse constituencies and respect the knowledge that each participant brings to the table. Moderators must ensure that all have opportunities to contribute, rather than allowing particular individuals and interest groups to dominate. These are only some of the necessary elements of inclusive deliberation.

I do not mean to suggest that the impediments are insurmountable. For more than a decade, there have been extensive efforts to promote community engagement and public deliberation in decisions about health research and policy. Much has been learned about inclusive deliberation in the process. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, as well as other scientific organizations, should take this knowledge into account in structuring their policy activities. The Asilomar summit is an antiquated and inadequate deliberative model for today’s science policy.

Rebecca Dresser

Daniel Noyes Kirby Professor of Law and professor of ethics in medicine

Washington University in St. Louis

Cite this Article

“Forum.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 2 (Winter 2016).

Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Winter 2016