As part of a recent book project, my collaborator Vesla Weaver and I had the opportunity to interview three young men from New Orleans about their views on criminal justice in America. In no uncertain terms, they described feeling that they were regularly targeted by police by virtue of their race, class, and age: “We got that bull’s eye on our back as soon as we’re born,” one said, describing his experiences with police in the low-income and primarily Black neighborhood where he had been raised. “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.” And once they were “in the system,” having been arrested or fingerprinted, they felt as if they had been permanently marked as second-class citizens. “Once you mess up, you given your life over to the government, because they got you.… Democracy don’t get you a second chance.”
In light of recent events in St. Louis, the culture and consequences of policing in America have begun to receive a great deal of attention. As many studies have documented, the prevalence of police encounters, as well as other contacts with criminal justice, have grown exponentially over the last few decades. Policies that changed how we police and incarcerate have resulted in much larger proportions of the population being exposed to criminal justice institutions. However, they have also led to a shift in the types of people who experience some form of contact with criminal justice.
In our new book, Professor Vesla Weaver and I provide evidence that most of those who now encounter police and even criminal courts are never found guilty of any crime. In New York City alone, police stops increased more than 600 percent over the past decade. Just one in ten of these stops resulted in the individual being arrested or charged with a crime. In a nationally representative sample of young Americans, fully 20 percent report having experienced being stopped and questioned by police but never arrested, and about half that number have been arrested but never convicted of a crime. These proportions are significantly higher among low-income and racial minority youth.
So what? Setting aside debates about the causes of these remarkable trends, we still know surprisingly little about their many effects on democratic life. Do encounters with criminal justice affect Americans’ attitudes toward government, shape their perspectives on race, and alter their likelihood of voting or engaging in other forms of citizen participation?
Our research reveals that institutions of criminal justice teach citizens a host of lessons about democratic life, their government, and themselves as members of the body politic. Specifically, we find that adversarial, involuntary contacts with criminal justice institutions alter what people believe about government and their own standing as citizens. But these “lessons” stand in stark contrast to the democratic virtues that sustain a healthy democratic polity. From encounters with police, prosecutors, courts, and prisons, people learn it is best to remain quiet, make no demands, and be generally wary and distrustful of anyone in authority. This civic learning stands directly at odds with the ideals of democracy itself.
From detailed analyses of large, nationally representative surveys, supplemented with more than one hundred in-person interviews, we find sizeable effects of experiences with police, prisons, and other criminal justice institutions on a range of citizen attitudes and behavior.
- Compared to those who have never had contact with criminal justice, those who have been arrested but never convicted are 16 percent less likely to “feel like a full and equal citizen” in America. These individuals are 20 percent less likely to believe that “everyone in the US has an equal chance to succeed.”
- People who have been stopped and questioned by police or arrested for a crime—but have never been convicted in a court of law—are roughly 10 percent more likely to express distrust of government.
- When asked how much government leaders “care about people like me,” fully three-quarters of people who had experienced punitive contact with the criminal justice system said “very little,” compared with just 36 percent of otherwise similar people with no criminal justice contact.
- Citizens with prison experience are much less likely to be registered to vote or to report having voted in the past presidential election. But even encounters that do not result in a criminal conviction are associated with a reduced likelihood of turning out in an election. And the effects are sizeable: encounters with criminal justice agents and institutions discourage citizen participation just as much as traditional predictors of lower participation, such as poverty.
- Compared to socioeconomically similar Blacks, African Americans who have had experiences with police, courts, or prisons perceive substantially more racism and feel less optimistic about racial equality.
In sum, we argue that the modern criminal justice system transforms citizens’ relationship to the American state. Intentionally or not, the movement to “get tough on crime” has deepened the divide between those Americans whose voice is heard and those whose views are silenced. In a nation that aspires to political inclusion and responsive government, our results should elicit considerable concern. That these ill effects fall especially hard on Blacks and other traditionally disenfranchised minorities should give us particular pause.
Read more in Amy E. Lerman and Vesla M. Weaver, Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control. The University of Chicago Press (June 2014).
In 2009, Professor Steve Raphael spoke with Policy Notes (Winter 2009) about how mandatory and parole sentencing guidelines had created a “de-facto policy experiment,” resulting in America’s extraordinarily high incarceration rate. In the Fall 2011 issue, he discussed the federal court mandate for California to reduce its prison population and the impact of a budget realignment that proposed to push $6 billion from state to local levels in a variety of areas, including incarceration. Since then, the Goldman School’s criminal justice expertise has both broadened and deepened. In addition to Professor Steve Raphael, Professor Jack Glaser’s work with implicit discrimination and law enforcement (see article, page 9) and Professor Amy Lerman (see article, page. 6), GSPP recently welcomed Professor Jennifer Skeem, whose work combines expertise in clinical psychology and criminal justice.
For the past two years, Professor Steve Raphael has been studying the effects of realignment on California’s prison and jail population and crime rates, first as an internal researcher for the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris and then in joint research with scholars at the Public Policy Institute of California.
“Realignment reduced California’s prison population to 1992, pre-3 strikes levels,” says Professor Raphael. “It has had an impact on the county jails, which have absorbed about one third of the lower risk inmates who have been moved out of state penitentiaries. But otherwise there has been very little impact on crime, recidivism or return to custody. It’s turned out to be a win-win.”
California's success in reducing prison overcrowding has also opened opportunities for new research agendas. Professor Raphael is working with Magnus Lofstrom of the Public Policy Institute of California to study how prosecutorial behavior may shift as realignment has changed how parole is administered.
“Given the new parole rules that went into effect in September 2011,” says Professor Raphael, “we want to study whether prosecutors are more or less likely to charge people who get arrested.”
Professor Raphael is also beginning a new project examining a randomized control trial of Hawaii's Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE), a program for those arrested for a felony who are released pre-trial subject to supervision.
“Our evaluation is randomly assigning a portion of pre-trial releases to be actively supervised by Judge Steven Alm,” says Professor Raphael. “If someone commits a pretrial violation, Judge Alm uses a combined system of swift, certain and brief punishment in combination with graduated rehabilitative services for those who need it. The study follows people for a year to see what happens to pretrial misconduct levels and arrest rates. We’re hoping to find successful ways to manage offenders outside of jail. The study addresses the issues raised by the increased use of county jails as a result of realignment.
“County jails are crowded,” he continues. “Any innovations that could safely relieve this crowding would be welcomed.”
Professor Jennifer Skeem stands at the intersection of criminal justice, public health and psychology.
“I study youth and adults with behavioral and emotional problems who are at risk for violence, crime, and justice system involvement,” she says. “The goal is to inform policy and legal decision-making about these groups.”
This includes people with serious mental illness, a group that is disproportionately represented in the justice system.
“Work over the last fifteen years has challenged the dominant assumption that these people are in prison simply because the mental health system somehow failed them,” says Professor Skeem. “We’re learning that mental illness rarely is the direct source of criminal behavior.”
“Of the violent incidents and crimes in which people with mental illness are involved, less than 10% are directly caused by delusions, hallucinations, or other symptoms,” she continues. “Although psychiatric treatment is (appropriately) emphasized in programs for justice-involved people with mental illness, symptoms explain little of the variance in criminal behavior.
“People with mental illness share strong risk factors with their healthier counterparts, like disadvantaged neighborhoods, childhood abuse, antisocial peers, substance abuse, and emotional dysregulation. If programs are expanded beyond psychiatric treatment to also target factors that maintain criminal behavior, they may be much more effective in promoting desistance and community re-entry.”
Professor Skeem’s work also involves risk assessment tools, which summarize risk factors to estimate a person’s likelihood of future violence or other criminal behavior.
“These tools are increasingly being used to inform sentencing decisions.” she says. “Risk assessment can be used to help reduce bloated prison populations without increasing the crime rate. For example, in Virginia, risk assessment is completed for nonviolent offenders who are bound for incarceration. Those who represent a low risk are recommended for alternative punishment like probation; those with higher scores proceed with their sentence recommendations unchanged.”
Some argue that sentences informed by risk assessment instruments are discriminatory because the instruments include variables (e.g., criminal history, employment status) that can be proxies for minority race and poverty. But existing practices—sentencing guidelines that focus on criminal history; judges’ informal consideration of risk—can also create bias. Professor Skeem, along with Professors John Monahan and Amy Lerman, is working to empirically assess whether the introduction of risk assessment to sentencing exacerbates, ameliorates, or has no effect on any existing racial disparities in incarceration.
“One way to maximize public safety is to change the behavior of a small group of high-risk individuals,” says Professor Skeem. “Correctional programs that target the highest risk offenders are the most effective in reducing recidivism.”
This may be particularly true for juveniles. Professor Skeem is on the front end of new projects that focus on whether early adolescence offers a unique window of opportunity for well-aimed treatment to improve the life chances of high-risk youth.
“Adolescence is a period of remarkable brain plasticity,” she says. “The onset of puberty marks the beginning of changes in features like reward processing that may make this a unique period for social and emotional learning—a time when behavior is most responsive to shaping through intervention.
“We can and should continue to work with high-risk adults. But the question is whether early adolescence provides a natural inflection point for promoting trust, empathy, and prosocial motivation and goals. If so, policy could be shaped toward intervening during this period to yield large-scale crime reduction.”