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Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control

Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control

by Amy E. Lerman, Vesla M. Weaver

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The numbers are staggering: One-third of America’s adult population has passed through the criminal justice system and now has a criminal record. Many more were never convicted, but are nonetheless subject to surveillance by the state. Never before has the American government maintained so vast a network of institutions dedicated solely to the control


The numbers are staggering: One-third of America’s adult population has passed through the criminal justice system and now has a criminal record. Many more were never convicted, but are nonetheless subject to surveillance by the state. Never before has the American government maintained so vast a network of institutions dedicated solely to the control and confinement of its citizens.
A provocative assessment of the contemporary carceral state for American democracy, Arresting Citizenship argues that the broad reach of the criminal justice system has fundamentally recast the relation between citizen and state, resulting in a sizable—and growing—group of second-class citizens. From police stops to court cases and incarceration, at each stage of the criminal justice system individuals belonging to this disempowered group come to experience a state-within-a-state that reflects few of the country’s core democratic values. Through scores of interviews, along with analyses of survey data, Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver show how this contact with police, courts, and prisons decreases faith in the capacity of American political institutions to respond to citizens’ concerns and diminishes the sense of full and equal citizenship—even for those who have not been found guilty of any crime. The effects of this increasingly frequent contact with the criminal justice system are wide-ranging—and pernicious—and Lerman and Weaver go on to offer concrete proposals for reforms to reincorporate this large group of citizens as active participants in American civic and political life.

Editorial Reviews

Joe Soss

Arresting Citizenship is a landmark book. It shines a bright light on the myriad ways that criminal justice policies are undermining American democracy. It is also an exemplary piece of social science research that combines coherent and powerful empirical analysis with impassioned calls to recognize injustice in our midst. This book will be tremendously important and a must-read for scholars working in relevant areas of the social sciences.”
Jeff Manza

“Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver have written a fabulous book that makes the original and important argument that the criminal justice system is rife with racial and economic inequalities and strips those who enter it of many basic rights of citizenship. In doing so, they address a breathtaking range of issues concerning contemporary criminal justice and connect these issues brilliantly to give a clear and compelling discussion of how institutions have helped create a new class of disempowered citizens.”
Prison Policy Initiative

Arresting Citizenship is a powerful reminder of the work that needs to be done to preserve and expand the democratic principles of voice, responsiveness, and accountability.”
American Journal of Sociology

"Lerman and Weaver rigorously document how all types of contact with criminal justice institutions, ranging from police surveillance to incarceration, have transformed citizenship and democracy in America. Their intriguing and pathbreaking findings complicate our understanding of the carceral state and have broad implications for political inequality. . . . Well-written and thoughtfully researched, [the] book is a welcome addition to the rapidly growing social science literature on the collateral consequences of mass incarceration in the United States."
Perspectives on Politics - Naomi Murakawa

“While conversations on citizenship and punishment tend to highlight felon disenfranchisement, Lerman and Weaver take us from the voting booth to ‘the everyday machinery of our modern democracy,’ where a class of what they call ‘custodial citizens’ might retain voting rights but nonetheless ‘move through their daily lives with the expectation and experience of police contact’ and ‘experience firsthand being a suspect, convict, inmate, or offender.’”
Perspectives on Politics - Marie Gottschalk

“As the authors persuasively demonstrate in Arresting Citizenship, the vast number of custodial citizens and the vast controls and pernicious stigmas they must negotiate on a daily basis raise deeply troubling questions about the health of democratic institutions in the United States and about the character of the liberal state. Lerman and Weaver artfully mine a trove of general survey data and original interview data to document in mournful detail how millions of custodial citizens face powerful barriers to full citizenship that are largely invisible to the wider public but are politically, socially, and economically debilitating.”
Contemporary Sociology

Arresting Citizenship is a compelling piece of scholarship that takes a hard look at the failings of US democracy and US crime control. . . . The authors bring together key sociological insights on socialization and stigma to show how respondents who had had contact with the criminal justice system were less likely to vote (even when voting rights were restored), to be civically engaged, to believe in their own efficacy, or to trust government. . . . Lerman and Weaver write with a sense of urgency and purpose, and they provide us both with a useful framework for understanding the nature of this dilemma, and with a toolkit for taking action. It is an essential text for any conversation going forward about penal reform.”
American Prospect

“Lerman and Weaver make a significant contribution. They use survey results and interviews to reveal the civic attitudes of the group they call ‘custodial citizens’: not just those behind bars, but also those on probation, on parole, or who simply reside in heavily policed neighborhoods.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Arresting Citizenship

The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control

By Amy E. Lerman, Vesla M. Weaver

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-13797-1


Arresting Citizenship

"Hard," he replied.

We had barely finished asking Renard how he would describe government in America when his single syllable pierced the room and hung there, simple but strange. Unwavering, Renard repeated himself. "The government is hard." After a long pause, he found more words to explain. "Government is like freedom," he said, "but not freedom. We're free but we're not free."

When we met him, Renard was working for a social service program in Louisiana along with two friends, Xavier and Reggie. These three young adults, with their contagious energy and outgoing smiles, had grown up together in Covington, a small town on the edge of New Orleans. Together they knew quite a lot about government. What they described, however, in the two hours that we interviewed them, bears little resemblance to the government depicted in most scholarly accounts of American politics. They did not refer to political parties vying for office in the legislature, municipal leaders making decisions in city hall, or even mundane bureaucratic practices like going to the post office or filing taxes. Indeed, nearly all of what these three young men described about government broke from the formal definitions learned in high school civics courses, practiced in the American electoral arena, and displayed in the rich civic traditions of town-hall meetings, civic associations, and bowling leagues.

Instead, most of what Renard, Xavier, and Reggie know and understand about government was born of their direct experiences with the state institutions that most directly structured the daily dramas of their communal and individual lives. As Xavier illustrated, reaching for the salt shakers and sugar packets to map out a small replica of his town on the table, government in his community formed a Bermuda Triangle of sorts: in the left corner a police station; in the right corner a court; and at the apex a jail. A majority of what these young men had come to believe about government derived primarily from their interactions with these and other institutions of criminal justice—encounters with Covington police and probation officers, going to court and meeting with the public defender, visiting a brother in prison for life, and spending nights on the cold floor of the overcrowded Saint Tammany jail.

Reggie, Xavier, and Renard are just three of the many people whose voices and experiences are documented through the surveys and interviews described in this book. What does American democracy look like to this large and growing group of citizens? What practices do they see enshrined in government, what lessons do they hear it espouse, and what have they come to expect from their elected officials and political institutions? Most basically, how do these individuals experience citizenship in America today? Our central argument in this book is that criminal justice institutions have come to play a socializing role in the lives of a substantial subset of Americans, fundamentally influencing how they come to conceptualize the democratic state and their place in it.

In the time we spent with Renard and his friends, it became clear that their experiences with criminal justice had taught them important lessons about their social and political standing in America. They described how, by virtue of being young, black, and poor, they and those like them were subjected to frequent police stops, during which they were treated with suspicion. "They got to look at people as people," Xavier explained to us. "It's like they're hunting tigers or something. Or lions.... If you get to know me, I'm the funniest person. But me, I'm black. I got a mouthful of gold, tattoos on me. I'm already looking like a drug dealer." Renard similarly related his feeling that they were the inevitable targets of negative attention from authorities: "We got that bull's eye on our back as soon as we're born," he said. And once they were "in the system," having been arrested or fingerprinted, they felt permanently stigmatized. "Once you mess up, you given your life over to the government, because they got you.... Democracy don't get you a second chance."

A great deal of scholarship has emerged to show that the frequency of contact with criminal justice that Renard and his friends describe makes them far from unique. By young adulthood, fully 24 percent of Americans have been arrested at least once, 12 percent have been convicted of a crime, and 5 percent have been incarcerated. Many more have been stopped and questioned by police. The experiences of Renard and his friends are especially common among their particular demographic: nearly one in four blacks who did not complete high school is now confined in a juvenile correctional facility, jail, or prison. For low-income black men coming of age today, contact with government through police stops, arrest, adjudication, probation, incarceration, and parole has become the de facto rule rather than a notable exception; it has become an "experience of the expected."

These high rates of exposure to criminal justice grew out of dramatic shifts in criminal justice practices in cities and counties across America. In New York City alone, police stopped and questioned almost 700,000 people in 2011, an increase of more than 600 percent from a decade earlier. Other areas of criminal justice likewise witnessed tremendous expansion; rates of citizen contact with courts, probation offices, prisons and jails have experienced exponential growth since the 1970s. Four decades ago, 5 percent of adult men had ever been convicted of a felony and 2 percent had ever been to prison; by 2004, this proportion had swelled considerably, such that 13 percent of adult men have a felony on their record and 5 percent have been incarcerated. Otherwise stated, men are more than twice as likely to have experienced incarceration or to have a felony record in 2004 as they were in 1968.

Our inquiry in this book goes beyond these frequently cited statistics, however. More important, we suggest, is that in contrast to an earlier era, the relationship between criminal behavior and contact with criminal justice has become increasingly tenuous. For instance, just one in ten of the abovementioned police stops in New York resulted in the individual being arrested or charged with a crime. Put another way, in about 90 percent of cases there was insufficient evidence that the individuals who were stopped were actually engaging in criminal behavior. Rather, the criteria used to detain them were often circumstantial. In nearly two-thirds of police stops in New York, a contributing factor was that the individual was "walking in a high crime area." Many others were stopped because they "fit the description" of a suspect, made "furtive movements," or were "wearing clothes commonly used in a crime." The result of these practices is that, in a representative sample of young Americans, fully 20 percent report having been stopped and questioned at least once by police but never arrested, and about half that number have been arrested but never convicted of a crime. Again, the proportions are significantly higher among young black men.

It is hard to imagine that these experiences leave no mark. Yet existing models of American politics provide little theorizing to help make legible the perceptions and experiences voiced by Renard and others like him. Most frequently, scholars of American politics portray citizens' reticence to engage the political process as passive: They have not been mobilized by a candidate or campaign; they do not have the time, money, or knowledge to get involved in political life; they do not have any stake in the process because they do not receive (or are unaware that they receive) some type of direct benefit from government. This is true even in extant scholarship on those with criminal convictions, as the existing literature has focused primarily on felon disenfranchisement and other legal restrictions that bar individuals from expressing their political voice. These studies provide important insights into American political psychology and behavior, but fall short in helping us explain the experiences of Xavier and Reggie, who retained the right to legally participate in elections but chose not to do so. Nor do they fully explain the political orientations of Renard, who was disenfranchised due to a felony conviction but whose negative perceptions of government and sense of stigmatized citizenship had caused him to withdraw even from the other avenues of participation that remained open to him.

By any measure, money and education were not in abundance in the small community where Renard and his friends were raised. But for these young men, political disengagement had a distinctly different source: As they put it, "All we know about government is bad. We don't know the good aspects. And it might really be good in some spots, some parts. But we don't know that." From their direct experience of nonelectoral institutions, they had learned that government was not predominantly about redistribution or social supports or even about elected officials passing laws for the good of the people; it was about surveillance, punishment, and control—"keeping people in line." Thus, nonengagement for them was not passive abstention stemming from a lack of will or resources. Rather, they believed their best strategy was to intentionally stay invisible, to actively avoid authorities, and to keep a low profile. "You got to stay out of their view," Xavier explained. "Okay? If you be seen too much, [the police assume] you're doing something."

We are not the first to trace the growth of the carceral state, nor are we the first to suggest that custodial citizens occupy a "semi-citizenship." Like us, these scholars suggest that criminal justice and its effects are not epiphenomenal to discussions of American democracy. The shifts in America's form and style of governance that we trace in this book are a political experiment that has no equal; no fully democratic system has ever attempted to operate with such intensive surveillance of its citizens and such demographically and geographically concentrated levels of punishment. This book sets out to trace the effects of these unprecedented historical developments for the practice of democracy and citizenship today. While our analyses are concerned with criminal justice policy and its consequences, ours is therefore a broader argument. This is not only a book about how punitive a society we have become; at its core, this book is about the character of the American state and the increasingly defining role of its least democratic institutions.

The Carceral State and American Democracy

It is often taken as an article of faith that the United States has always been centered in a strong democratic tradition, in which citizens were "born equal, instead of becoming so." Indeed, a core tenet of American exceptionalism is that democracy in the United States did not emerge from an authoritarian past, but was instead "ordain[ed] and establish[ed]" as "a more perfect Union." In this telling, the nation's antidemocratic periods are historical pitfalls overcome in the forward march toward democratic inclusion. Political struggles for equality—to end slavery, enfranchise blacks, extend the vote to women, and secure civil rights—progressively built on one another over time to bring the country's practice of democracy into line with its promise. In his most famous speech on race, then-candidate Barack Obama reminded voters that, through the struggles and sacrifice of "Americans in successive generations," the nation had "narrow[ed] that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time."

Yet while national rhetoric often portrays democratization in the United States as "a tale of steady progress," scholars have long noted that extending citizenship to all Americans took many years, was hotly contested, and endured significant and repeated periods of backsliding during which democracy remained elusive. As Desmond King and Robert Lieberman rightly note, America's "democratic character has varied greatly—over time, across regions, and across groups of citizens and claimants to citizenship." Democratic practices took hold only "gradually and haltingly," with advances accompanied by significant contractions, during which whole groups were purged from citizenship and entire regions of the country remained "authoritarian enclaves." In this view, America has been on an "unsteady march," blending liberal democratic tenets with rival, illiberal ideologies of ascriptive hierarchy. For most of our history, American democracy was at best "incomplete," better understood as a "restricted democracy."

Even those who have been attentive to variations in American democratic institutions and citizenship over time, however, most often end their accounts of our formally undemocratic past in the 1960s or soon thereafter. A consensus holds in many quarters that the United States by that period had rid itself of antidemocratic practices and illiberal citizenship and was now approaching, if it had not already arrived at, formal democratic enlightenment. Relying on T. H. Marshall's tripartite conception of citizenship, most democratic theorists broadly concurred that at least the first two tenets of citizenship—civil and political rights—were firmly institutionalized in America by the second half of the twentieth century, even if social rights remained elusive. Speaking of the main instruments of democracy—universal suffrage, free speech and political expression, freedom to organize politically, and equality before the law—Sidney Verba stated plainly: "Equal political rights are fairly well established in the United States." The massive civil rights mobilizations of the 1960s were the nail in the coffin of state-sanctioned inequality in America, and the Civil and Voting Rights Acts "ushered in a new era of democracy." These important reforms assured that the essentials of the democratic ambition laid out by Verba, Robert Dahl, and others were in place by century's end, and we could now take "more or less for granted the fundamental democratic nature of the American regime." Accordingly, as America's undemocratic epochs receded into the past, "nondemocratic outcomes cannot help but appear as anomalies."

We believe this accepted narrative of the nation's democratic arc is inaccurate or, at best, incomplete. In the chapters that follow, we address the complex question of whether American democracy is "alive and well" in American criminal justice. We bring a host of evidence to bear, from which we make two arguments that together form the basis of our claim that the criminal justice system has carved out an important exception to our democratic norms and, in so doing, has undercut the forward trajectory of equality and inclusion in America today.

The Carceral State and the Custodial Citizen

Criminal justice institutions have not only grown more pervasive over time, as numerous studies attest. In many ways, we argue, they also have grown more antidemocratic in character. We mean two things by this. First, we refer to changes in the systems' institutional features. As scholars of felon disenfranchisement have already noted, a significant collateral consequence of American crime control is that many individuals have been formally cut off from the democratic process. By losing important political and social rights of citizenship—the vote, jury service, ability to pursue many jobs and to access the social safety net—felons undergo a form of "civil death." However, by focusing solely on the ways in which felons are legally excluded from suffrage and other democratic rights and privileges, scholars have missed the more complex but no less crucial ways in which the lived experience of American citizenship has changed for a growing group of Americans. Our argument is that criminal justice practices have broken significantly with the democratic norms that govern most American institutions: instead of embodying the commitments of a democratic republic, they undermine equality, restrict citizen voice, and insulate public officials from accountability and responsiveness. Thus, even those citizens who formally retain the right to vote are exposed to a set of institutions that systematically deny them the basic rights of a full and equal democratic citizen.


Excerpted from Arresting Citizenship by Amy E. Lerman, Vesla M. Weaver. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Amy E. Lerman is assistant professor in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of The Modern Prison Paradox. She lives in Berkeley, CA. Vesla M. Weaver is assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies and the Department of Political Science at Yale University. She lives in New Haven, CT, and is coauthor of Creating a New Racial Order.

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