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Critical Faculties

Life sentence

It's a government program whose impact rivals the New Deal. It pushes whole communities out of society's mainstream. It costs tens of billions of dollars a year. Scholars are just beginning to understand how prison is reshaping the country.

(Sophie Elbaz/Sygma)

WHAT if America launched a new New Deal and no one noticed? And what if, instead of lifting the unemployed out of poverty, this multibillion-dollar project steadily drove poor communities further and further out of the American mainstream?

That's how America should think about its growing prison system, some leading social scientists are saying, in research that suggests prisons have a far deeper impact on the nation than simply punishing criminals.

Fueled by the war on drugs, "three-strike" laws, and mandatory minimum sentences, America's prisons and jails now house some 2.2 million inmates - roughly seven times the figure of the early 1970s. And Americans are investing vast resources to keep the system running: The cost to maintain American correctional institutions is some $60 billion a year.

For years sociologists saw prisons - with their disproportionately poor, black, and uneducated populations - partly as mirrors of the social and economic disparities that cleave American life. Now, however, a new crop of books and articles are looking at the penal system not just as a reflection of society, but a force that shapes it.

In this view, the system takes men with limited education and job skills and stigmatizes them in a way that makes it hard for them to find jobs, slashes their wages when they do find them, and brands them as bad future spouses. The effects of imprisonment ripple out from prisoners, breaking up families and further impoverishing neighborhoods, creating the conditions for more crime down the road. Prisons have grown into potent "engines of inequality," in the words of sociologist Bruce Western; the penal system, he and other scholars suggest, actively widens the gap between the poor - especially poor black men - and everyone else.

"This is a historic transformation of the character of American society," says Glenn Loury, a Brown University economist who has begun to write on this topic, most recently in the Boston Review. "We are managing the losers by confinement."

The shift isn't just academic. In national politics, concern about the people who actually go to prison has been drowned out by tough-on-crime rhetoric, but today the issue is getting a hearing from some politicians, and not just hard-left liberals. On Oct. 4, Congress's Joint Economic Committee will hear testimony from Western, Loury, and others on the economic and social costs of the prison boom. The session will be chaired by Jim Webb, the gruff, moderate Democratic Senator from Virginia. Cities including Boston and San Francisco are changing their hiring practices to destigmatize prisoners, and there is detectable momentum in Congress toward reducing the extraordinarily harsh minimum sentences for possession of crack cocaine, which disproportionately affect poor black Americans.

The issue has arrived on the public agenda in part because of the work done by a handful of leading sociologists. Western's 2006 book "Punishment and Inequality in America" is a key work in this new scholarly movement. Devah Pager, a Princeton sociologist, has been making headlines since her dissertation, completed in 2002 at the University of Wisconsin, demonstrated how a criminal record - even for nonviolent drug offenses - made it nearly impossible for black ex-convicts in Milwaukee to land a job. This month, a book based on that work, "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration," appears in bookstores. And the sociologist Lawrence Bobo, who left Harvard for Stanford two years ago but is returning in January, has been investigating how the growing black prison population is eroding African-Americans' confidence in the rule of law.

For years, the penal system was a marginal topic among sociologists, catching the interest chiefly of professors with an interest in hard-core criminology. But in the past decade, discussion of incarceration has moved to the center of the field, in the work of respected scholars at top institutions who are interested in a broad understanding of American inequality.

"My sense of it is just that the sheer mass, the weight of the reality of what's happening, has sunk in," says Loury.

With black men in their early 30s more likely to have been in prison than to have graduated from college, and with 700,000 ex-prisoners reentering society each year, the trends cannot be ignored. The current US rate of some 750 prisoners per 100,000 citizens is several times higher than rates in Europe - higher, even, than the rates in formerly repressive states like Russia or South Africa.

In "Punishment and Inequality in America," Western documented the degree to which poor black communities across America live in a penitentiary shadow. Of black males born in the late 1960s who did not attend college, 30 percent have served time in prison, he pointed out. For high-school dropouts, the figure is a startling 59 percent. "I don't think the really deep penetration of the criminal justice system into poor and minority communities has been fully understood by people outside these communities," says Western.

Mass incarceration, Western argues, also renders invisible a substantial portion of American poverty. At the height of the tech boom in 2000, he points out, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts weren't working. Government statistics, however, said the unemployment level of this group was 33 percent, because government surveys exclude prisoners.

At the root of prison's broader social impact lies its lingering effect on individual lives. In an ideal penal system, prisoners might exit the system having paid their debt to society and be more or less restored to their previous status as free men and women. But Pager's book demonstrates just how detached from reality that view is. She had four college students, two black and two white, pose as applicants for low-level jobs in Milwaukee (excluding jobs where a criminal record would have disqualified them).

They used résumés that were nearly identical - high school degrees, steady progress from entry-level work to a supervisory position - except that in some cases the applicant had a drug conviction in his past (possession with intent to distribute) for which he served an 18-month sentence and then behaved perfectly on parole.

In surveys conducted by Pager, 62 percent of Milwaukee employers said they'd consider hiring an applicant with a nonviolent drug offense in his past. But in her field study, Pager found that her black applicants with criminal records got called for an interview - or to interview on the spot, as they applied in person - a mere 5 percent of the time. That compared with 14 percent for the black applicants without a criminal record. Meanwhile, the white applicants with a record were called back 17 percent of the time, compared with 34 percent for the white men lacking the blotch on their résumé. "Two strikes" - blackness and a record - "and you're out" is how Pager summarizes her findings. (Pager has replicated this study in New York City, with similar results.)

Job prospects for black ex-prisoners in Milwaukee may be even worse in the future, Pager argues in "Marked," because while the vast majority of job growth is in the suburbs, the gap between employers' receptiveness to black and white ex-convicts is even wider there.

Western explores the same set of post-prison issues on a broader statistical canvas. He found that whites, Hispanics, and blacks all face a hit in their wages of about a third, relative to their peers, when they emerge from prison, and also work fewer weeks per year. Their peers will see significant raises from ages 25 to 35, but the ex-prisoners won't, widening the gap. Former prisoners, too, are far less likely ever to marry, but no less likely to have kids, meaning that prisons contribute to the epidemic of female-headed, single-parent households. (Some 9 percent of all black children now have a father in jail.)

Sociologists and a few politicians are not the only ones aware of these trends, argues Lawrence Bobo. Black Americans interpret them as evidence of stark racism, according to surveys he's done. Seventy-nine percent of white Americans, for example, think drug laws are enforced fairly, compared with 34 percent of black Americans.

Black Americans' concerns about the justice system burst to the fore in Jena, La., last week when thousands protested prosecutors' tough treatment of six black teenagers after an assault on a white student. When Bobo looks broadly at black attitudes about the justice system, he doesn't find them irrational.

"We as a society," Bobo wrote last year, "have normalized and, for the time being, depoliticized a remarkable set of social conditions."

Policy makers are slowly beginning to reckon with some aspects of these developments. In 2004, President Bush, in his State of the Union address, acknowledged some of the challenges caused by mass incarceration, Pager points out, describing the hundreds of thousands exiting prisons annually as a "group of Americans in need of help." And this year liberals like Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and conservatives like Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) have cosponsored the so-called Second Chance Act. It would provide $192 million for drug counseling, family counseling, housing, and mentorship for ex-offenders to assist their reentry into their communities.

A handful of cities, including Boston, no longer ask applicants for city jobs whether they have a criminal record, although their backgrounds can still be checked later. A growing "Ban the Box" movement - referring to the check-off box on an application, signaling a conviction - is designed to reduce the kind of upfront discrimination Pager identifies. San Francisco and St. Paul have also signed off on the idea, while Los Angeles is pondering it.

To these ideas, Pager would add a policy modeled on how we treat debtors: After a certain amount of time, records of most convictions, especially for nonviolent offenses, would be expunged. Stigma would have a deadline.

Such proposals would do nothing to roll back prison populations, but bills introduced by Senators Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Biden to raise the amount of crack cocaine that triggers automatic five- and ten-year sentences might do so. (The possession of crack - typically a drug of the poor, and specifically the black poor - is penalized far more harshly than the powdered cocaine preferred by middle- and upper-class drug users.) Bruce Western advocates ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug conviction, and adds some further thoughts about reducing prison populations: "We could be spending money and social services to reduce the risks that make people likely to go to prison in the first place - on drug addiction, on mental-health services, on housing."

In a campaign year, the prison issue is a tough one - such arguments don't have the easy pull on voters that "tough on crime" policies do. Yet with Congress calling prison experts to testify about their research, and coverage in the mainstream media of the protests in Jena, "I do sense there is a public conversation beginning," Western says.

Christopher Shea's column appears regularly in Ideas. E-mail

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