Trading Democracy for Justice: Criminal Convictions and the Decline of Neighborhood Political Participation

Trading Democracy for Justice: Criminal Convictions and the Decline of Neighborhood Political Participation

by Traci Burch


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226064932
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/23/2013
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics Series
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Traci Burch is assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University and research professor at the American Bar Foundation. She is a coauthor of Creating a New Racial Order. She lives in Chicago, IL.

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Trading Democracy for Justice


By Traci Burch


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-06476-5



It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself—or die.

— Malcolm X

"Prior" incidents, which increased tensions and ultimately led to violence, were police actions in almost half the cases; police actions were "final" incidents before the outbreak of violence in 12 of the 24 surveyed disorders.

— Report of the National Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968

Imagine your hands callused, cramped, and swollen from writing each day for hours with the cartridge of a ballpoint pen—legal briefs, letters, essays, your master's thesis—and writing everything twice because the prison might "lose" the copies you send out.

— Noelle Hanrahan

At first glance, these three quotations originate from disparate sources and describe markedly different phenomena. Yet each of these statements eloquently conveys the same sentiment: the criminal justice system has the power to mobilize, and demobilize, individual citizens and entire communities. The common sentiment expressed by these sources is that interactions with the criminal justice system shape the ability and desire of citizens to act in the political world. Political activism is intimately tied to state supervision and coercion: experiences with police, courts, judges, and state correctional bureaucracies can generate political activity by perpetuating the development of a revolutionary consciousness not only among convicts like Malcolm X, but also among other individuals who observe or experience varying degrees of contact with the criminal justice system, as the National Commission on Civil Disorders Report details. More commonly, however, the criminal justice system demobilizes citizens, taking away their ability and desire to participate in politics, as Hanrahan suggests. For the vast majority of citizens involved with the criminal justice system directly as suspects or convicts, or indirectly as the families, friends, and neighbors of suspects and convicts, interactions with the criminal justice system bring about their absence, rather than their presence, in mainstream political life.

At many points in the American past, various institutions of the criminal justice system—police, courts, jails, and prisons—have been used flagrantly to prevent political mobilization by certain groups or individuals. During the 1950s, for instance, suspected Communists were subjected to intense public harassment by Congress and even prosecutions under the Smith Act and other anti-Communist legislation. The efforts made by the FBI and its COINTEL program to disrupt civil rights organizations provide another example of the use of law enforcement to demobilize citizens. State-sanctioned vigilante violence also contributed to black disfranchisement in the South after Reconstruction. South Carolina senator "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, describing the effort to stop black voting after Reconstruction in his state, said, "We have done our level best. We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate every last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it."

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, coupled with a constitutional ban on poll taxes, did much to eliminate the use of law enforcement for political subjugation. However, many people allege that the threat of state reprisal still restricts turnout among disadvantaged groups today, especially blacks and immigrants. A joint investigation by People for the American Way and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) revealed reports of signs posted in black districts that attempted to mislead potential voters about elections using the threat of legal sanctions. These signs, much like the historical one shown in figure 1.1, threatened potential voters with fines or imprisonment if they even attempted to vote.

Despite such lingering examples of intimidation, the criminal justice system no longer plays such an obvious role in political repression. Government officials are not permitted to use legal institutions to punish their political enemies, and real protections for violations of civil rights have been instituted at the federal and state levels. For the most part, Americans are thought to experience state power through increasingly apolitical bureaucracies. At the same time, it is also true that governments in the United States supervise and imprison a higher proportion of their citizens than any other country in the world, including China and North Korea. This high level of citizen criminal justice involvement may not have overt roots in the desire to subjugate political enemies; however, as this book will show, these punitive interactions between citizens and the criminal justice system still matter for politics.

This book explores the repercussions of the criminal justice system for American democracy. The central premise of the book is that the government, by punishing citizens, affects politics by defining who belongs to the political community, specifying how and when citizens can participate in politics, redistributing resources among individuals and social groups, and determining the balance of power and influence among citizens. This effect on the political community occurs because criminal convictions destroy the social and human capital of individual offenders and, by extension, that of their families and neighbors. Regardless of one's normative position on crime and justice, it is difficult to deny that the experiences of individuals with the criminal justice system forever change their relationship with the state and with other citizens. When such experiences involve incarceration, probation, or disfranchisement, they obviously diminish the ability of offenders to participate in politics and to influence government, at least for the duration of their punishment. What will become apparent from this text, however, is that our treatment of offenders decreases the power and influence not only of those people who are convicted or disfranchised, but also of citizens who never face such punishment themselves.

Most political scientists would argue that a criminal justice system that supervises a little more than 3 percent of the adult population should not affect political outcomes in any real sense. However, such arguments ignore the fact that criminal justice interactions are demographically and geographically concentrated. What appears to be a small percentage of adults nationally represents a high percentage of residents in many neighborhoods; because of the concentration of criminal justice interactions within these geographically bounded spaces, as many as one-third of residents in disadvantaged communities can be under criminal justice supervision at any given time. This book focuses on concentration effects as the central mechanism through which individual experiences with criminal justice shape the political outcomes of entire communities. Previous research has found that in high-incarceration blocks in Brooklyn, "about one in every eight parenting-age males is sent to prison or jail each year." Similarly, Western, Pattillo, and Weiman argue that incarceration is fast becoming "a pervasive event" in the life cycle of young black men; 32.4 percent of young black male high school dropouts of ages 22–30 are in prison or jail; for comparable whites, the figure is 6.7 percent. Current estimates project that almost one-third of black males born in 2001 will be incarcerated in a state or federal prison in their lifetimes, compared with 6 percent of white males. Thus, the concentration of criminal justice interactions means that such contacts with state power are increasingly common in the lives of disadvantaged people, particularly minorities. The criminal justice system, in some instances, may even rival public assistance bureaucracies as the most prominent state actor in many of the most distressed communities in the United States, thus serving a primary role in shaping the relationship between citizens and the state in those communities.

This work measures the prevalence of contacts with the criminal justice system across neighborhoods and relates the frequency of those contacts to political outcomes, focusing on neighborhoods in two states: Georgia and North Carolina. Keys to the strength of this enterprise are neighborhood-level data on political participation, political attitudes, crime, imprisonment, probation, parole, and disfranchisement constructed on the basis of data from state boards of elections, departments of corrections, departments of public health, market research firms, and the Census Bureau. These uniquely detailed data, when combined with survey data, allow for precise analyses of politics at the neighborhood level. The analyses presented in this work employ advanced statistical techniques such as matching and regression analysis to avoid problems such as selection and omitted-variable bias that often plague neighborhood-level studies, making it possible to make strong causal inferences. Never before has such a comprehensive project been undertaken to determine the causal influence of incarceration on neighborhood participation.

The data indicate that, in disadvantaged neighborhoods across several cities, the spatial concentration of imprisonment, probation, and parole far exceeds the national average concentration of 0.43 prisoners and 1.42 probationers and parolees per square mile. Neighborhoods experience the burdens of prison and community supervision unequally. In the block groups in this study, imprisonment density ranges from no prisoners to 470 prisoners per square mile in Georgia and from no prisoners to 260 prisoners per square mile in North Carolina. The density of community supervision ranges from zero to 330 probationers or parolees per square mile (community supervision data are available only for North Carolina). These high spatial concentrations reflect that fact that residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods experience imprisonment at rates almost ten times the national average in North Carolina and fourteen times the national average in Georgia. Probation and parole rates are similarly high in both states. Among young adults between the ages of 18 and 34, the situation is more dire: the average imprisonment rate for young adults in North Carolina is twice the national average for all adults; for Georgia, the young adult imprisonment rate is four times the national average for all adults.

The analysis further demonstrates that such intensive involvement with the criminal justice system has a politically demobilizing effect on low-income and minority neighborhoods. Moreover, imprisonment, rather than community supervision, seems to stand out as the form of punishment that most influences participation. Voter turnout in the 2008 general election was about 6 percentage points lower in North Carolina and 2 percentage points lower in Georgia neighborhoods with the highest concentration of imprisonment than that in neighborhoods with average spatial concentrations of imprisonment. Likewise, each new prison admission prior to the election lowers overall neighborhood voter turnout by about 1.4 percentage points. Estimates produced from individual-level data confirm that people living in the highest-imprisonment neighborhoods are 74 percent less likely to vote than individuals living in neighborhoods with no prisoners. The effects of imprisonment are not limited to voter turnout, however: people who live in high-imprisonment neighborhoods also are 43.4 percent less likely to undertake other civic and political activities such as signing petitions and protesting; are members of 33 percent fewer groups; and volunteer 78 percent fewer times a year.

Although it is likely that the criminal justice system influences political participation through several mechanisms, the evidence points to its effects on the social dynamics and economic resources of communities as the most likely explanatory factors. Anecdotal evidence of the economic strain of imprisonment on the families and friends of offenders abounds. However, this study adds evidence that residents of high-imprisonment neighborhoods also are less likely to be involved with formal social networks such as intact families, churches, and membership organizations and demonstrate fewer informal ties to their neighbors as well. It is well established that financial resources and social involvement contribute to political involvement; this study demonstrates that living in a high-imprisonment neighborhood influences political behavior by decreasing the economic and social resources available to citizens.

These findings are presented in three chapters. Chapter 3 introduces the 2008 Neighborhood Criminal Justice Involvement Data and uses it to measure variation in the frequency and spatial concentration of imprisonment, probation, and parole for felony convictions across neighborhoods in Georgia and North Carolina. The purpose of this chapter is to provide readers with a sense of how prominently criminal justice interactions feature in the lives of poor minority neighborhood residents relative to people living in other communities. To that end, the chapter presents visual evidence of the correlation between imprisonment and community supervision and the black percentage of a neighborhood population, the Hispanic percentage, the poverty rate, and the homicide rate. Maps of neighborhood imprisonment and community supervision are presented for several cities in both Georgia and North Carolina in order to provide further evidence that this inequality is not an isolated phenomenon. Chapter 3 also presents evidence of the effects of imprisonment and community supervision on young adults in each state. As these data show, in many neighborhoods, the political socialization of youth is taking place in a context in which anywhere from one-tenth to one-third of young people are under criminal justice supervision for felonies. Consequently, in these neighborhoods, one-tenth to one-third of young people is barred from voting and other aspects of civic life.

Chapter 4 presents three different tests of the effects of neighborhood criminal justice context on voter turnout and other forms of political participation. The first analysis shows a statistically significant and strongly negative relationship between the spatial concentration of imprisonment and voter turnout in Georgia and a curvilinear relationship in North Carolina. As was just noted, the expected turnout in neighborhoods at the upper end of the prison density scale is about 6 percentage points lower than that in a neighborhood with no prisoners in North Carolina and 2 percentage points lower in Georgia, even after controlling for homicide rates, poverty, median income, racial composition, and other characteristics of the neighborhood. The second analysis shows that prison admissions also seem to diminish voting: in 2008, neighborhoods from which at least one person was sent to prison before the general election had lower voter turnout than those neighborhoods from which a person was sent to prison after the general election, again, these results hold despite controlling for a number of neighborhood-related factors. Based on simulations, imprisoning neighborhood residents in Georgia before the 2008 election decreased neighborhood voter turnout by 1.4 percentage points. The third test switches the level of analysis from the neighborhood to the individual, attaching a version of the Neighborhood Criminal Justice Dataset generated for the year 2000 to the Saguaro Seminar's 2000 Social Capital Benchmark Survey. Those findings provide further support for the overall conclusion that imprisonment diminishes political participation: residents of high-imprisonment neighborhoods were statistically significantly less likely to vote and undertake other political activities than people living in lower-imprisonment neighborhoods. At moderate levels of imprisonment concentrations, these effects were minor: people living in neighborhoods with average spatial concentrations of imprisonment were only about 2 percentage points less likely to vote than people living in neighborhoods with no prisoners. However, living in a neighborhood at the highest level of imprisonment decreased the likelihood of voting by 73.4 percent. These data also show that imprisonment diminishes participation in political and civic activities.

Excerpted from Trading Democracy for Justice by Traci Burch. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1 Introduction
2 Theory
3 A First Look: Imprisonment and Community Service
4 Neighborhood Criminal Justice: Context and Political Participation
5 Exploring Mechanisms
6 Can Mobilization Help?
7 State Police Power and Citizen Political Power

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