In many urban areas across the United States, police departments, criminal courts, probation and parole offices are the agencies of government most familiar to residents. A recent study of New York City, for example, showed that three-quarters of 18 to 19 year-old black men are stopped by the police each year. On any given day, eleven percent of young black men are in jail or prison, and one third are living under some form of correctional supervision. The prevalence of prison terms, police encounters, and other contacts with criminal justice have grown at a breakneck pace. The incarceration rate in America more than quadrupled over the last four decades. Imprisonment went up when crime grew – but also went up when crime declined.
Importantly, though, policies that changed how we police and how much we confine resulted not just in larger proportions of the population being exposed to criminal justice. It has also led to a shift in the types of people who experience some form of contact with criminal justice. In fact, most of those who encounter police and courts have never been 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 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.
So what? Setting aside debates about the causes of these remarkable trends, we still know surprisingly little about their many effects on American life. Democratic citizenship is one of the most crucial areas to investigate. Do encounters with criminal justice institutions affect Americans’ attitudes toward government and democratic values – and alter their likelihood of voting or engaging in other important forms of citizen participation? For blacks and Latinos who are disproportionately affected, do contacts with police, courts and other agents of surveillance and punishment shape perceptions of racial equality and the social standing of minorities in America? In our new book, we tackle these important questions. Our findings document worrisome trends and suggest new ways of thinking about the issues and what is at stake.
Encounters with Authoritarian Institutions Heighten Citizen Distrust
Numerous studies attest to the growth of criminal justice over time. But these institutions have not only become more pervasive; they have become less democratic, embodying practices at odds with the core commitments of citizen voice and equality and institutional accountability and responsiveness. Over recent decades, prosecutors and police have gained new immunities, and it has become harder for citizens to express grievances and pursue legitimate claims of misconduct.
At the same time, U.S. prisons have adopted tighter limits on free speech and limited the ability of prisoners to form unions and other groups. Prison unions and newspapers once flourished, but are now discouraged or prohibited; and the Prison Litigation Reform Act has placed new limits on inmates’ access to the courts. Overall, criminal justice has become more authoritarian during the same era that millions more U.S. citizens, especially minorities, are exposed to the system.
Our research reveals that institutions of criminal justice teach citizens 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. 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.
Impacts on Citizen Trust, Participation, and Racial Outlooks
From detailed analyses of large, nationally representative surveys, supplemented with over 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 systemsaid “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. 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 participationsuch as poverty.
- Compared to other socioeconomically similar blacks, African Americans who have had experiences with police, courts, or prisons perceive more racism and feel less equal.
Correlations are not the same as causation, of course. To fully explore the causal processes at work, we went beyond the numbers to talk directly with people about their experiences. From these interviews, we learned that people who had experienced police stops or other forms of punitive encounters in the criminal justice system were not only less likely to vote, but had also actively withdrawn from political engagement of other kinds, in part because they learned to fear any interactions with the state. As a middle-aged black man in Charlottesville put it, discussing why he would never contact a public official for assistance, “I feel like they’re not interested in what I have to say. I feel like if I contact a senator or governor, they’ll probably want to put me in jail and leave me as a troublemaker. I’m serious. That’s how I actually feel: ‘I better stay below the radar....’”
The Reforms America Needs
In a nation that aspires to political inclusion and responsive government, our results should elicit concern. The modern criminal justice system not only does social and economic harm to the many individuals who encounter it, as well as their children, partners, and communities. It also transforms citizens’ relationship to the polity. Intentionally or not, get-tough-on-crime activities have deepened the divide between those Americans whose voice is heard and those whose views are silenced. That these ill effects fall especially hard on blacks and other traditionally disenfranchised minorities should give us particular pause.
What should we do? Bringing the scope of criminal justice activity back into line with the scale of actual crime rates gains new urgency given our findings. For instance, finding alternatives to imprisonment, especially for non-violent violations, is an important step. In addition, though, real reform must take seriously the culture of our democratic institutions, giving citizens voice in the issues that concern them and being responsive to citizens’ complaints and concerns—even those institutions tasked with surveillance, adjudication, and punishment. Our country needs to instill democratic values into police, courts and prisons, assuring basic democratic rights even in these necessarily regimented settings. These steps can be taken without undermining public safety – and all of them are important to help revitalize the democracy in which all Americans have a strong stake.
Amy E. Lerman is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and co-author with Vesla M. Weaver of Yale University of Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control from the University of Chicago Press (June 2014). This article was first published by the Scholars Strategy Network.