NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Effects of High Rates of Imprisonment on Communities

October 18, 2002

Prisons separate criminals from their communities, supposedly leaving those communities safer, stronger and more capable of enforcing their own social codes.

But a new book suggests that in poor inner city communities the policy of increasing incarceration has backfired. In one of the essays in "Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment," Todd R. Clear of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice makes the point that incarceration taken to an extreme leaves the community unprotected, the prisoner untreated and the whole society demonstrably worse off.

  • Beginning in 1972, the prison population started a pattern of unrelenting growth from a base of around 200,000.
  • Critics argue the increase occurred with little regard for crime rates, economic cycles or demographic changes.
  • The result is a 500 percent increase in incarceration, with more than 1.3 million inmates in prisons and jails.

Clear's point isn't that that incarceration (or the system) is bad; rather, his point is that high rates of imprisonment have unanticipated consequences.

  • Overuse of incarceration reduces its stigma in poorer inner-city communities and, therefore, its deterrent power.
  • Overuse of incarceration also has the effect of taking huge numbers of black fathers away from their families and out of their communities.
  • It also reduces respect for the criminal justice system in those communities.

High levels of incarceration of people from impoverished communities destabilize community life, according to Clear. Damaging the most basic underpinnings of informal social control reproduces the very dynamics that sustain crime.

Skeptics might wonder, what is the alternative?

Source: William Raspberry, "Prison Paradox," Washington Post, October 14, 2002; see also Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lin (eds.), Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment (New York: New Press, October 2002).


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