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Todd R. Clear The Impacts of Incarceration on Public Safety IN T H E PAGES TH A T FOLLOW W E W ILL TAKE A LOOK IN S ID E TH E BLACK box of the largest penal experim ent in world history: the quintupling of the prison population in the United States between 1973 and 2006. A central question that emerges and that will be our focus is: W hat have been the social consequences of our incarceration policy? One objective is to provide insight into w hat m ight be called the prison policy paradox, namely, that a 500 percent generation-long growth in im prisonm ent has had little im pact on crime. Broadly speak­ ing, crime rates today are about w hat they were in 1973, though they have fluctuated dram atically over the 33-year tim e span since then. Beginning in 1973, crim e rates w ent up into the early 1980s, w ent down for a few years at the end of that decade, w ent back up again, and then experienced a lengthy downward trend starting in the late 1990s. Prison populations, on the other hand, have risen every year since 1990. The rate of growth, however, appears to be w aning since about 2000. The prison policy paradox is that a systemic and sustained growth in incarceration can be accompanied by such sporadic changes in rates of crime, and leave the crime rate essentially unchanged over a generation of the accelerated use of the prison. How can this happen? Answers are provided by looking inside the black box of penal policy and by identifying the various ways incarceration leads to social outcom es that are associated w ith public safety. This essay considers social research Vol 74 : No 2 : Summer 2007 613 the problem of “public safety” (as opposed to rates of crime) because safety is a broader concept than crime. Though a desire for public safety includes a desire for low rates of crime, public safety connotes the more profound interest we have to live in a society w here we feel secure pursuing our personal goals and fulfilling our life desires (Smith, 2001). Using public safety as our criteria enables us to consider the ways incar­ ceration affects our quality of life, especially through the way incar­ ceration affects the inform al social relations that prom ote the kind of profound social control that is a foundation for a sense of feeling safe. Three types of effects are described. Positive effects are those that improve public safety, negative effects reduce public safety, and “am bivalent” effects have the capacity to be both positive and negative. Five levels of social impacts on public safety are assessed: ►Effects on individuals that change the way people act; ►Effects on intimate relationships such as those w ith families and other loved ones; ►Effects on social relationships that are felt as community-level outcomes; ►Effects on institutions such as labor m arkets and the political econ­ omy; ►Effects on democracy or social justice. This essay will summarize what is known, empirically and experientially , about the positive and negative ways incarceration affects levels of social expression. There are two especially im portant aspects of incar­ ceration that bear on this review: what incarceration does, and to whom. W hat incarceration does is to remove people from places for a period of tim e, then return them to those (or other) places changed by having experienced confinem ent. This sounds obvious, but w hen people consider the implications of incarceration as a policy they rarely do so with this simple cycle in mind. They think, often, of the potential benefits of removing a criminally active person from the community. But that is not w hat happens; at least, that is not all that happens. For 614 social research the overwhelming m ajority of people who are sent to prison, w hat actu­ ally happens is a cycle: they are removed from the streets, confined for two or three years, then returned to the community. Many of those who go through this process once—at least a third—end up going through it multiple times, returning to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 613-630
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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