There are good reasons, then, to believe that high rates of incarceration, concentrated in impoverished residential areas, will have negative impact on the health and safety of those areas. Studies of this question are mixed, but tend to bear this out.
Health Outcomes. Several studies have investigated the relationship between incarceration and health. The most direct impact has been documented for STDs. Johnson and Raphael (2005) have shown that the disparity in HIV rates between black and white women closely parallels the disparity in incarceration rates between black and white men. They speculate that the cause is the higher rate of HIV infection transmission that occurs in prison, and the resulting community-based transmission of the disease after men are released from prison. But epidemiologist James Thomas, of the University of North Carolina, has a different explanation. He has argued that the removal of large numbers of men provides the explanation for higher rates of STDs in these neighborhoods, not their return. His position is, essentially, that the way incarceration destabilizes social networks and private social control leads to unsafe sex that increases the transmission of sexual diseases in poor communities. His study (2005) of Durham, North Carolina, finds that incarceration rates in counties and smaller geographical units at one time predict STD rates at a later time. In the same way that incarceration weakens interpersonal bonds that promote informal social control, it weakens the bonds of commitment that promote sexual fidelity and responsible sex practices. His argument is bolstered by the fact that teenage births follow the same pattern (and it is more logical to believe teenage birth rates rise because of irresponsible sex practices that increase when men are in short supply, rather than the mere presence of many men who have been released from prison). In addition, ethnographic work in Durham confirms that the distorted ratio of young women to sexually desirable male partners has distorted the patterns of sexuality in these places.
A larger body of work has been published regarding the health of families and children. Divorce (and breakup) rates are high for families where the male goes to prison. Studies show that men who have been to prison are less likely to marry after incarceration, than men of the same background who have never gone to prison. They cohabit, even in long-term relationships, but they tend not to marry (Western et al., 2004). It is no surprise, then, that places with high rates of incarceration have high rates of single-parent families (Sabol & Lynch, 2003). Because men who go to prison earn less money for the rest of their lives, perhaps as much as 40% less (Western, 2006), they provide less economic support to the families with whom they cohabit. There is a pattern of mutually reinforcing problems here: places that produce lots of people going to prison are always places with very low economic resources; the people who leave prison to return to these places will themselves face diminished earning capacity. The result is a cycle of diminished family health and well-being.
Children of incarcerated fathers have been found to suffer a range of problems in adjustment. The quality of studies on this topic varies, as do the findings. But parental incarceration has been identified as a risk factor for a range of child age maladies, including: truancy, academic underperformance, depression, anxiety, and violent acting out. In general, the effects when the incarcerated parent is a man are moderate compared to when the incarcerated parent is a woman. Here again, the damaging effects for women are larger than those for men, suggesting that even though fewer women are behind bars, the impact of their incarceration is greater. Studies have consistently shown that having a parent who was incarcerated is a major risk factor for a child to end up in prison, and the reasons cited above suggest why.
Research carried out in Australia (Weatherburn & Lind, 2004) sheds light on the way that the destabilization of families can lead to delinquency. Their study found that economic deprivation led to dysfunctional parenting practices (faulty disciplinary methods and risk of abuse). These practices weakened the bonds between parent and children, and the latter substituted an enhanced attachment to peers for the unsatisfactory attachment to parents. Because those suffering from economic deprivation tend to live in neighborhoods with a greater supply of delinquents as peers, the youth who become alienated from their parents become attached to delinquent colleagues. Thus, delinquency becomes amplified.
Safety Outcomes. Several studies have investigated the impact of concentrated incarceration on crime rates.3 The original argument that very high rates of imprisonment would lead to higher rates of crime was first
3 There is a body of literature assessing the impact of incarceration, generally, on crime. This literature covers a range of studies reaching a broad range of conclusions. For a review of these studies, see Chapter 2 of Clear (forthcoming).
made by Rose and Clear (1998) who said that there would likely be a "tipping point" after which the deterrence and incapacitation benefits of imprisonment would be outweighed by the way it has destabilized the neighborhood's capacity for informal (parochial and private) social control. In a later paper (Clear et al., 2002), they found strong evidence in support of the tipping point thesis, analyzing crime and incarceration data in Tallahassee, Florida. They show that neighborhoods with low levels of incarceration in one year experience less crime in the following year, but neighborhoods with the highest levels of incarceration experience increases in crime rather than decreases in the following year. Similar effects have been found in Portland, Oregon, Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago [see Chapter 7 of Clear (forthcoming)].
The "tipping point" thesis and the evidence in support of it are controversial, because the exact relationship is difficult to model. Crime and incarceration are reciprocally related; that is, incarceration is undoubtedly a result of crime, because with only the rarest of exceptions, people do not get locked up unless crimes have been committed. Yet the model also posits a complicated relationship in the opposite direction: up to a point, incarceration will reduce crime; after a point, it will increase it. The available data and math to statistically model this sort of effect are not very satisfactory.
For example, Lynch and Sabol (2004) analyzing data in Baltimore and Cleveland found a similar kind of pattern to incarceration and crime as Clear and his colleagues when they replicated that modeling method. When they used a different statistical technique (instrumental variables), not only did the nature of the impact change, it reversed itself, suggesting that higher rates of incarceration decrease crime (though it also increased fear of crime and had other problematic effects). They conclude that the tipping point models of crime and incarceration are inconclusive, at best, and potentially wrong.
Taylor et al. (2006) entered this debate by investigating the impact of adult incarceration on serious juvenile crime. They argue that using juvenile crime is a solution to this problem, because it breaks the reciprocality of the crime-incarceration relationship: it is irrational to argue that juvenile crime "causes" adult incarceration. When they investigate incarceration and juvenile crime (arrest) rates in Philadelphia neighborhoods, they find support for the tipping point thesis: high adult incarceration rates in one year lead to increasing juvenile crime rates in the years that follow.
In a review of this and other work on the topic, Clear (forthcoming) argues that the weight of the evidence supports the tipping point thesis. The argument is simple. To argue in favor of the tipping point thesis is to argue that incarceration, at high rates of concentration, clearly destabilizes families, weakens bonds between parents and children, decreases economic well-being, diminishes the capacity of social networks, reduces long-term job market viability, increases serious juvenile delinquency, and increases crime. The opposite argument is that concentrated incarceration has all of these same negative effects, each of which might be expected to increase crime, yet it does not increase crime. On balance, it seems more logical to accept the idea that although the assertion that incarceration at the highest levels tends to increase crime has not been definitively proven, the evidence to support that conclusion is strong.
Was this article helpful?