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Bruce Western Mass Imprisonment and Economic Inequality T H E G R O W T H OF PENA L P O P U L A T IO N T H R O U G H T H E LAST D E C A D E S o f th e tw en tieth century reshaped the institutional landscape of American poverty and inequality. The effects of rising incarceration rates have been especially large for young m inority m en w ith little schooling. We are currently living in an era of “mass im prisonm ent.” Under mass im prisonm ent, the experience of incarceration is so pervasive am ong some social groups as to be a defining feature of their collective experience—incarceration characterizes the group and influences their life chances. Evidence for this claim can be seen in estimates of incarcer­ ation rates and lifetime risks of im prisonm ent for recent birth cohorts of white and black m en at different levels of schooling. These statistics show that young black m en w ith little schooling became pervasively involved with the criminal justice system by the late 1990s. This historically novel and highly concentrated rate of incarcera­ tion has two profound effects on American economic inequality. First, mass im prisonm ent generates invisible inequality. Our official statistics and data sources that measure the economic well-being of the popula­ tion do not count those who are institutionalized. The large labor force surveys that measure the unem ploym ent rate, for example, are drawn from samples of households. Because prison inm ates are not included in these surveys, em ploym ent rates are significantly overstated among people m ost likely to go to prison. Once we factor in the effects of invis­ ible inequality through the late 1990s, we see that the economic expansocial research Voi 74 : No 2 : Summer 2007 509 Netherlands 124 97 Germany 96 France Switzerland Sweden Denmark 70 Norway 65 0 200 400 600 Incarceration rates per 100,000 residents, United States and Western Europe, 2004. sion did very little to improve the economic status o f young black m en w ith no college education. In addition to invisible inequality, incarceration reduces the life chances of form er inm ates after they are released. Through the stigma of a crim inal conviction, th e dim inished hum an capital from tim e out o f the labor force, and the weakened social connections to legiti­ m ate em ploym ent opportunities, incarceration reduces the wages and em ploym ent of those serving tim e in prison. Not only does incarcera­ tion reduce pay and em ployment, it also limits the kinds of jobs that are available to formerly incarcerated workers. Career jobs requiring a high level of trust, skill, credentials, or well-placed social connections are largely out of reach for those w ith prison records. As a result, incar­ ceration channels form er inm ates into the secondary labor m arket in which em ploym ent is precarious and there are few prospects for mobil­ ity. In this way, the growth of the American penal system has hardened the lines of social disadvantage. We usually study prisons and jails in the context of their effects on crime. By calculating the scope of mass im prisonm ent, the penal system becomes im portant not chiefly for its effects on crime, but for its effects on social inequality. Figure 1 510 social research MASS IMPRISONMENT The scale of the penal system is usually m easured by an incarceration rate. The incarceration rate records of the num ber of people in prison or jail on a given day per 100,000 of the population. Figure 1 compares the US incarceration rate in 2004 to the incarceration rates of the long­ standing democracies ofW estern Europe. The penal systems ofW estern Europe locked up, on average, about 100 per 100,000. The United States by contrast incarcerated m ore than seven times the European average, w ith an incarceration rate o f over 700 per 100,000. The contem porary scale of crim inal punishm ent is also histori­ cally unusual. Although we do not have long...


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