The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color

In poor and disadvantaged communities, there may well be a tipping point at which rigorous crime policies and practices can do more harm than good.

Understandably, most of us would expect that removing criminals—those who would victimize others—from a community would be welcomed by the populace, and that both residents and their property would be better off as a result. For most places, that is likely true. Removing a person who has hurt others or who does not respect the property of others is tantamount to removing a thorn from a tender foot. But there is a growing body of evidence that suggest that this may not always be the case, because of the effects that time in prison has on individuals and their home communities. There are collateral consequences that accrue to imprisoned people even after their sentences are completed, and some criminologists believe that when the number of felons removed from a community is “too high,” it may actually harm the places where they use to live. And, since most people who are incarcerated return to the same neighborhoods, or very similar places as those they were removed from, their presence in large numbers, when they go home, adds a substantial burden there, too.

Although the United States has made some progress, it remains a substantially racially segregated nation residentially. And, the country stays very economically segregated as well. It is not surprising that poor people of color have been incarcerated disproportionately during the massive increase in imprisonment that has occurred in the nation since the early 1980s. It is from poor communities of color that a very large number of felons are removed, and to these same neighborhoods that they return when their sentences end. This population churning has been called “coercive mobility” by criminologists. Although it is the intent of legislatures, judges, police, and prosecutors to protect citizens and communities, there is reason to believe that coercive mobility has the unintended consequence of actually increasing crime and victimization.

Some of the changes during this period of increased incarceration that disadvantaged people of color coming into the justice system were implemented with the help and support of African American political leadership, with the express purpose of protecting black and brown communities. Perhaps the best example of this is the initial federal sentences for crack cocaine offenses: conviction for crack selling (more heavily sold and used by people of color) resulting in a sentence 100 times more severe than for selling the same amount of powder cocaine (more heavily sold and used by whites).

A long-running academic debate among criminologists has gone on during this same period about race and justice, the central question being how much of high minority incarceration is a consequence of differential involvement in criminal behavior versus a biased criminal justice system. That debate is not settled. But one factor is pretty much agreed upon: There is overrepresentation of minority group members among those engaging in crime, but even after this is taken into account, people of color are overrepresented in U.S. prisons and jails. The question is how much of the high levels of incarceration of African Americans and Latinos is warranted by higher levels of crime and what proportion is unwarranted. The best research indicates that the answers to these questions should be answered by looking specifically at types of crimes. Among the most serious violent crimes, the evidence suggests that unwarranted racial disparity is modest. For less serious crimes, the proportion of unwarranted racial disparity increases. This can be seen clearly by considering the evidence on drug imprisonments resulting from the war on drugs. Good evidence indicates that racial and ethnic groups use and sell drugs proportionally to their representation in the population; so about 13percent of drug users and sellers are African Americans, about 17 percent are from the various Latino groups, and approximately 65 percent are whites (whites tend to sell to whites; blacks to blacks). But, more than 50 percent of those imprisoned for drug sales or possession are people of color. In fact, one study by the group Human Rights Watch found that black men are sentenced on drug charges at a rate that is more than 13 times higher than white men.

Some observers have claimed that African American and Latino drug dealers are more likely to be arrested because their activities are more likely to occur in open air public drug markets than does the dealing of whites. But at least one study has found that police elect to pursue open air drug markets with minority dealers and ignore those where whites are selling. Overall, the war on drugs has been especially hard on minority individuals and communities, and this cannot be justified by overrepresentation of these groups in this particular form of criminal behavior.

Contrary to what some casual observers might think, residents of African American and Latino communities want crime control, as well as effective and fair policing and a criminal justice system that removes crime perpetrators but that is also accountable to those communities. Popular media reports that focus on the “don’t snitch” norm of some segments of those communities mask important distinctions. First, the belief that a don’t snitch mindset exists in black communities tends to “criminalize” the entire population. This feeds into the historical experience of many law abiding citizens living in these communities that as far as “the system” is concerned, they are all criminals. Most people living in communities of color are law abiding citizens who have little in the way of other housing options. They feel that they are stopped, hassled, and disrespected by police just as often as those who are actually committing crimes. For these folks, there is little incentive to cooperate with a system they believe will ultimately abandon them when a case is over. Second, people in these communities have to live there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They know that law enforcement won’t be there to protect them forever. They have to live with the very real fear of retaliation from criminals in the community if they cooperate. It is not unusual for witnesses, and even victims, to a crime to refuse to testify or cooperate because they believe that the system will abandon them when a case is over. To the extent that a don’t snitch norm exists, it is primarily observed among some young people in very socially and economically disadvantaged communities. Also, the populations in even the most disadvantaged sections of cities are very heterogeneous with respect to views of police and criminal justice agencies and institutions. Young African Americans who wear “don’t snitch” t-shirts are no more representative of their communities than young whites with multiple piercings and tattoos are of theirs.

Some observers perceive the “black lives matter” movement to include a demand to remove police from black neighborhoods. Nothing could be further from the truth. That movement is calling for effective and accountable policing. So when serious criminals—those who victimize and terrorize black and brown communities—are arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, there are multiple responses in the places where they lived and, more often than not, engaged in their predatory behavior. There may be those who see and lament “another brother oppressed by the man, but the vast majority of people who live there will be pleased that someone who hurt and victimized others is, at least for a time, no longer roaming their streets free to wreak more havoc.

Problems with the “solutions”

As is the case for every community, when criminals are removed from socially and economically disadvantaged African American and Latino communities, there is a benefit to those places. Not only is a person who would victimize others not able to do so, but crime, especially high levels of crime, are bad for the collective good of communities. Crime can destabilize neighborhoods. When people live in fear of personal or property victimization, they view their environment as a threatening, scary place. Such spaces do not promote the kind of cohesion and closeness among neighbors that is important for healthy and productive social engagement. When residential areas, and even commercial districts, are cohesive and individuals are engaged with each other, people can participate in the kinds of social life that make crime less likely. So, too much crime actually increases the likelihood of more crime.

What some criminologists fear is that going too far in the opposite direction—with the criminal justice system removing too many residents from a neighborhood—potentially causes two separate but related types of problems. With incarceration there is collateral damage to those locked up, as well as to those who they are connected to: partners, children, extended family, and any positive friendship networks they had. Also, and perhaps less obvious, removing too many people from a troubled neighborhood can have a detrimental, crime-causing effect.

The overwhelming majority of inmates will be released from prison after serving their sentences, and the nation has struggled with how to help them reenter society. Generally, released prisoners must return to the county where they last lived, which, for most, means returning to a poor and socially isolated inner-city neighborhood or community. The unprecedented numbers now being released have compounded the problem. Many prisoners entered the system with drug, alcohol, or mental problems. In the vast majority of instances, they received little or no treatment or counseling during their incarceration because of reduced funding for rehabilitation programs as well as the closing or scaling back of state mental facilities. Prisons, and even jails, have become the dumping grounds of necessity for those who have mental health issues. On another level, general health care within prisons, including mental health care, has been woefully inadequate, resulting in a number of lawsuits against both federal and state corrections systems. Unfortunately, this means that prisoners released back into their old communities return no better off—or, in many instances, worse off—than they were before being incarcerated.

In addition, released prisoners face collateral consequences that they were largely unaware of at the time they were originally sentenced. Collateral consequences to the imprisoned are the effects that remain after the formal sentence has been served. These damages are inflicted by law and by social practice. Among the former, some of the more onerous consequences are the legal denial of some social benefits—public housing access, welfare benefits, some college loans and grants, the right to vote, the right to live or work in certain places (school zones for some offenders), and requirements to register with local authorities. These damages were enacted by legislative bodies to punish those convicted of crimes, in the belief that those who violate “the social contract” should not benefit from the public’s largess, or in the belief that barring convicted felons from some of the things that others have access to is for the good of the broader community. But, not having access to these “privileges” will inhibit some who have been released from prison from taking the straight, narrow, and legitimate path, and thus increase the likelihood of them becoming again involved in criminal behavior. In addition to legally specified collateral consequences of felony convictions (and in some jurisdictions some misdemeanor convictions), there are informal consequences as well. Those who are convicted frequently lose intimate relationships with partners or access to their children, and they are less likely to find employment. Significantly, these consequences accrue even among inmates who do not spend long sentences in “the big house.”

There are also collateral damages to the families of those imprisoned, both while they are locked up and when they are released. One study, for example, found that the financial and time strain on the wives and girlfriends of inmates in upstate New York prisons imperiled relationships with both the women in prisoners’ lives and their children. Since families are a good anchor for prisoners when they are released, disruptions in family life increase the chances of recidivism. Another study comparing neighborhoods with high and low rates of incarceration, found that in the former, the gender ratio is sufficiently thrown off by the number of men going into and coming out of prison that marriage markets are negatively affected.

It has long been known that adding too many new residents to cities and neighborhoods can have a “criminogenic” effect, because when there are more new faces, when there are ever changing faces, the integration of new arrivals into the community is inhibited, allowing greater individual anonymity. Such circumstances create fertile ground for crime to occur and perhaps flourish. To be clear, this does not mean that migrants bring crime with them. In fact, the evidence has long suggested that movers have less of the characteristics that are predictive of criminal behavior. The problem is the lack of social integration. Similarly, when communities lose too large of a segment of their population, this same important, crime-inhibiting social integration can be disrupted. It is important to remember that even people who break the law occupy many different roles. They are husbands or wives or girlfriends or boyfriends, sons, daughters, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Families and the neighborhoods in which they reside struggle to fill the void when members are no longer there. The removal of too many people from communities can be disruptive. The nation has seen this in recent years when sections of formerly industrial capitals, such as Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, have lost population as people left in search of jobs. Some criminologists believe that when people from a community are imprisoned at a high enough number—coercive mobility—the effect may also be criminogenic.

So there are two countervailing forces or arguments: that removing problem criminal people improves the life of neighborhoods, and that removing too many people and then returning them can be criminogenic. The two most prominent researchers who have made the case regarding coercive mobility and its deleterious effects are Dina Rose and Todd Clear. They believe that there is a tipping point, below which imprisonment is normally good for a community, but above which it becomes criminogenic. This effect, coercive mobility leading to crime, is not thought to happen everywhere, but in severely socially and economically disadvantaged places. This is, in part, because a large amount of serious crime occurs there, but also because such places have very limited resources and do not have the collective resiliency to overcome high levels of imprisonment and large numbers of released men and women returning to the same problematic neighborhoods from which they came, or ones very much like them.

An important way to address the problems for communities of color is to reduce the residential racial and economic segregation that continues to cause problems for social life in the U.S.

Before considering the evidence for coercive mobility’s effects on communities, one more very important negative force should be highlighted: the diminished state—human capital, in the words of sociologists—of most returning former prisoners. It is generally accepted that having a good, solid family life lowers the probability of a person becoming involved in crime, and that having employment (especially good employment) does the same. Predictably, those most likely to be sentenced to a term in prison are less likely than others of their age, race, and gender to be involved in a stable relationship or to have been employed in a high-quality job prior to their incarceration. When men and women return from prison, their family life has an even higher likelihood of having been disrupted, and their competitiveness on the job market is even more diminished than it was before they were incarcerated. Time in prison means that these already marginal people are more marginalized, and they tend to return to living in neighborhoods that are already distressed by the presence of too many disrupted families and high levels of joblessness. They add to the already overcrowded pool of residents likely to not be in good relationships, to not be good prospects as mates, and to be not competitive for the desirable good jobs that will help them stay out of jail or prison and might help their community’s dismal economic state.

Which brings things back to the coercive mobility argument, as it may be critically important. If its proponents are correct, the very effort to reduce crime in some of the nation’s highest crime communities is doing the opposite in the context of mass incarceration. As a consequence, the National Research Council (NRC) committee charged with studying the causes and consequences of high rates of imprisonment took some time to evaluate the evidence for and against this thesis. The evidence is not conclusive, but it is suggestive. As observed in cities across the country, incarceration is very concentrated geographically.

In addition, the evidence indicates that, indeed, the places that released prisoners return to are just as geographically concentrated in other ways, as shown by comparison of the racial and ethnic composition of high-incarceration neighborhoods with the rest of the city, and the poverty rates for these communities and the city as a whole. The areas of concentrated incarceration are in predominately minority districts. This is the case in cities throughout the United States. The committee also found strong evidence that these places are among the most economically and socially disadvantaged sections of U.S. cities.

Thus, there is little doubt about this portion of the argument: prisoners come from and return to a narrow group of neighborhoods, very disadvantaged ones. Two other aspects of the coercive mobility argument are less clear.

First, there is some evidence that this concentration pattern is criminogenic, but other researchers have not found evidence that this pattern increases crime above and beyond what would generally be expected for similar neighborhoods. The strongest evidence for the argument has been presented by Rose and Clear in “Incarceration, Social Capital and Crime: Examining the Unintended Consequences of Incarceration,” based on their work in Tallahassee, Florida, and published in the journal Criminology in 1998, and in Clear’s review of research in his book Imprisoning Communities, published in 2007. Some additional research has also provided support. The strongest evidence to the contrary comes from several studies conducted by James Lynch and William Sabol in Baltimore, which yielded mixed evidence, but could not confirm the idea that incarceration was increasing crime rates in some of the city’s neighborhoods.

Second, critical to this notion is that there is a tipping point below which incarceration benefits communities, but above which high levels of coercive mobility increases crime rates. The research evidence does indicate that there is a nonlinear relationship between imprisonment and crime, which suggests that there is such a tipping point, but criminologists to date have not been able to settle on where that tipping point is.

After considering the evidence, the NRC committee concluded that it did not allow for affirmation that high levels of imprisonment cause crime in these neighborhoods. Interestingly, the committee reported that an analytically major problem for examining this thesis is that it is too hard—indeed, virtually impossible—to find enough white neighborhoods with the same levels of either imprisonment or disadvantage that exists routinely in many African American communities in nearly every major American city to allow for meaningful analysis. Cities in the United States are still far too racially segregated to make the analytic comparisons that are necessary, and the minority neighborhoods are where the disadvantaged are concentrated and from where prisoners are disproportionally drawn. So, although the committee could not affirm that high levels of incarceration increases crime in disadvantaged minority neighborhoods, it did find that the quantitative evidence is suggestive of that pattern. And a number of ethnographers—who have been spending time in these communities and watching how families, friendship networks, and communities are faring—are adding additional evidence that indicates that high levels of imprisonment, concentrated in disadvantaged communities of color, are indeed criminogenic.

Researchers are increasingly finding that both the collateral consequences of imprisonment, and living in communities from which many of the imprisoned come from and return to, do have detrimental effects. And these effects are visited upon the reentering individual, on their families, and on the communities at large. Reentering former inmates’ chances of success and reduced probability of recidivism are enhanced if they are returning to healthy families and can find decent employment. It has been well established that men, whether or not they have been to prison, are less likely to be involved in crime if they are in stable intimate relationships, employed gainfully, and living in decent housing. And for those returning from prison, those who establish these life patterns are more likely to have successful reentry to their communities. Importantly, a large proportion of men being released from prison hopes to and expects to live with their children. But families and children are negatively affected when parents go into prison, as well as when they return.

Unfortunately, in places characterized by high levels of incarceration, there are additional challenges. Studies of the effects of high incarceration rates in neighborhoods in Oakland have found that important institutions—families and schools, as well as businesses and criminal justice personnel, such as police and parole officers—have become reconfigured to focus on marginalized young boys, increasing the chances that they become more marginalized and involved in crime. Other studies in similar places in Philadelphia have also found that high levels of imprisonment undermined familial, employment, and community relationships, increasing the likelihood of criminal involvement. Additionally, researchers in San Francisco, St. Louis, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., have found that housing, family relationships, marriage, and successful reentry after prison appear to be negatively influenced by high neighborhood levels of incarceration.

Substantial policy changes that create more robust state efforts to support individuals during reentry will not only help them, but their families and the places they return to as well.

More ominously, evidence indicates that these patterns likely have a vicious intergenerational cycle. Children of individuals who have been imprisoned have reduced educational attainment, which obviously bodes ill for their future economic competitiveness. This means that in places with high levels of incarceration, this practice is contributing to another generation that has a heightened likelihood of living in disadvantaged communities. Additionally, researchers have found that judges are more likely to sentence children who come before the juvenile court more harshly if they come from disadvantaged neighborhoods than from more stable communities—yet again continuing the cycle of people moving from disadvantaged places to prison, which makes those neighborhoods more marginalized, which then increases the likelihood of the state removing more people, both juveniles and adults, into the corrections system.

What can be done?

There is an obvious and very straightforward answer to the policy question of how to confront the negative effects of mass incarceration—and that is to reduce it. Mass incarceration did not come about because of substantial increases in crime, but rather because of a set of policy choices that the nation has made. The same simple answer will address the policy question of how to confront the negative impact of mass incarceration on communities of color. Taking this step—reducing mass incarceration—will have profound effects on these communities, because they have disproportionally suffered from the increases in incarceration. And for anyone who may worry, there is no evidence to suggest that a move away from the high level of imprisonment, which characterizes the United States more than any other nation in the world, will result in a substantial increase in crime.

Another important way to address the problems for communities of color is to reduce the residential racial and economic segregation that continues to cause problems for social life in the United States. Admittedly, aiming for this goal will place greater challenges on policymakers and the public alike.

The good news is that there are efforts under way that, if moved forward, would mitigate some of the problems caused by the collateral consequences from imprisonment and some of the negative effects of coercive mobility on communities of color. In 2010, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws proposed the Uniform Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions Act, model legislation that might be adopted by the states. If passed, bills such as this would mandate that defendants be advised of all of the collateral consequences that formally accompany felony convictions at the time of sentencing and how they might be mitigated. Currently, courts have no obligation to advise defendants as to these collateral consequences because they are deemed to be “sanctions” rather than punishment. Furthermore, most criminal defense lawyers themselves do not know about or understand the range of collateral consequences that their clients face. In 2013, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers released a book titled Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions: Law, Policy and Practice, written by Margaret Colgate Love, Jenny Roberts, and Cecelia Klingele and published jointly with Thomson Reuters Westlaw. It is described as “a comprehensive resource for practicing civil and criminal lawyers, judges and policymakers on the legal restrictions and penalties that result from a criminal conviction over and above the court-imposed sentence.” Yet, today, most defendants have no idea of the added consequences they will face upon release from incarceration.

It is hoped that discussions around the proposed Uniform Collateral Consequences of Criminal Convictions Act would have the collateral benefit of pressing policymakers to seek out means by which they might mitigate the negative consequences. Since the majority of convictions are the result of plea agreements, defendants might be better informed of the consequences of their decisions. To date, several states, including Vermont, New York, Maryland, and Oregon, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands, have either enacted or introduced bills that contain elements of the model bill.

States may also elect to opt out of some of the federally mandated collateral consequences for some convictions. For instance, people convicted of drug offenses are, according to federal law, not permitted to receive some “welfare benefits,” or to live in federally subsidized housing. This is especially problematic for the families of the convicted, because they are then faced with the choice of receiving these benefits or turning away from the stigmatized family member. The latter option is hard on the maintenance of families and removes from the formerly incarcerated important support systems that enable successful reentry. States are permitted by Congress to opt out of these penalties, but their legislatures need to formally affirmatively enact laws to not have those sanctions applied in their state.

Before federal and state lawmakers decided to get tough on crime by increasing sentencing, most jurisdictions had more robust community services providers for returning prisoners. They were called parole officers. The role of these agents varied from place to place; some of the agents emphasized the police and enforcement aspects of the job, but others emphasized their roles to assist with what is now called reentry. Unfortunately, with the elimination of parole in some states, restrictions on it elsewhere, and declines in budgets for these services, too few people are charged with the responsibility to aid in the reentry process. This is a problem for both the returning individuals and for their families and communities. For example, now that the state of Washington has legalized the recreational use of marijuana, the state is in the process of releasing inmates currently held for possession convictions. One of the young men about to be released told a visiting academic researcher that he was worried because he had no home to return to, no job, and few prospects to help him when he stepped out of the prison door. As far as he knew, the state would not be providing him with reentry assistance. Both the negative effects of imprisonment to individuals and to high-incarceration communities can be mitigated if those returning are aided by having stable housing, their families are supported, and they are assisted in finding and holding employment. Although there were problems with the old sentencing practices and with parole, it was never the case that those systems did not perform important positive functions. Substantial policy changes that create more robust state efforts to support individuals during reentry will not only help them, but their families and, if the coercive mobility thesis is correct, the places they return to as well.

It may be tempting to suggest that those released not be allowed to move back to the communities they lived in when they got into trouble. But the simple truth is that most released prisoners have no place to go other than the communities they know. That is where their families and the people they know are. The likely outcome of such relocation policies would be less successful reentry and greater recidivism. For example, restrictions in some states on where sex offenders can live has led to increased homelessness in this population, making the task of keeping tabs on them more difficult for officials.

Ultimately, the best way to reduce the collateral consequences and the criminogenic effects of high rates of incarceration and their subsequent negative effects for communities of color is to reduce the number of people going into prisons and to create a more just society. On the first front, President Barack Obama recently commuted the sentences of 46 men and women who were serving federal prison time for nonviolent drug offenses, saying: “These men and women were not hardened criminals. But the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years; 14 of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses, so their punishments didn’t fit the crime.” These and other overly punitive sentences neither serve justice nor protect communities.

It is also clear that continued racial residential segregation exacerbates existing inequalities and fosters severe social and economic disadvantage. More robust enforcement of federal and state fair housing laws will reduce the disparity between minority and majority crime rates. Such action, along with eliminating society’s over use of prisons to confront social problems, will substantially reduce the effects of the collateral consequences from incarceration and coercive mobility on communities of color.

Robert D. Crutchfield is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Washington. Gregory A. Weeks is a retired judge for the Fourth Division of the Superior Court of North Carolina.

Cite this Article

Crutchfield, Robert D., and Gregory A. Weeks. “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 1 (Fall 2015).

Vol. XXXII, No. 1, Fall 2015