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Featured Research

Criminal Justice and the Creation of a Second-Class Citizenship in America

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).