Guide Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration

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Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration

Article PDF first page preview. You do not currently have access to this article. You could not be signed in. Sign In Forgot password? The revolving door of the prison is fueled, in part, by the social contexts in which crime flourishes. Poor neighborhoods, limited opportunities, broken families, and overburdened schools each contribute to the onset of criminal activity among youth and its persistence into early adulthood.

But even beyond these contributing factors, evidence suggests that experience with the criminal justice system in itself has adverse consequences for long-term outcomes.

Sheriff David Clarke - Mass Incarceration is a Myth

In particular, incarceration is associated with limited future employment opportunities and earnings potential, which themselves are among the strongest predictors of desistance from crime. As the cycle of incarceration and release continues, an ever greater number of young men face prison as an expected marker of adulthood. But the expansive reach of the criminal justice system has not affected all groups equally.

More than any other group, African Americans have felt the impact of the prison boom, comprising more than 40 percent of the current prison population while making up just 12 percent of the U. At any given time, roughly 12 percent of all young black men between the ages of twenty-five and twenty-nine are behind bars, compared to less than 2 percent of white men in the same age group; roughly a third are under criminal justice supervision. Over the course of a lifetime, nearly one in three young black men--and well over half of young black high school dropouts--will spend some time in prison.


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According to these estimates, young black men are more likely to go to prison than to attend college, serve in the military, or, in the case of high school dropouts, be in the labor market. Rather it has now become a normal and anticipated marker in the transition to adulthood. There is reason to believe that the consequences of these trends extend well beyond the prison walls, with widespread assumptions about the criminal tendencies among blacks affecting far more than those actually engaged in crime. Blacks in this country have long been regarded with suspicion and fear; but unlike progressive trends in other racial attitudes, associations between race and crime have changed little in recent years.


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  • Survey respondents consistently rate blacks as more prone to violence than any other American racial or ethnic group, with the stereotype of aggressiveness and violence most frequently endorsed in ratings of African Americans. While it would be impossible to trace the source of contemporary racial stereotypes to any one factor, the disproportionate growth of the criminal justice system in the lives of young black men--and the corresponding media coverage of this phenomenon, which presents an even more skewed representation--has likely played an important role.

    Experimental research shows that exposure to news coverage of a violent incident committed by a black perpetrator not only increases punitive attitudes about crime but further increases negative attitudes about blacks generally. The more exposure we have to images of blacks in custody or behind bars, the stronger our expectations become regarding the race of assailants or the criminal tendencies of black strangers.

    Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration

    The consequences of mass incarceration then may extend far beyond the costs to the individual bodies behind bars, and to the families that are disrupted or the communities whose residents cycle in and out. The criminal justice system may itself legitimate and reinforce deeply embedded racial stereotypes, contributing to the persistent chasm in this society between black and white. The phenomenon of mass incarceration has filtered into the public consciousness through cycles of media coverage and political debates.

    But a more lasting source of information detailing the scope and reach of the criminal justice system is generated internally by state courts and departments of corrections. For each individual processed through the criminal justice system, police records, court documents, and corrections databases detail dates of arrest, charges, conviction, and terms of incarceration.

    Most states make these records publicly available, often through on-line repositories, accessible to employers, landlords, creditors, and other interested parties. With increasing numbers of occupations, public services, and other social goods becoming off-limits to ex-offenders, these records can be used as the official basis for eligibility determination or exclusion.

    The state in this way serves as a credentialing institution, providing official and public certification of those among us who have been convicted of wrongdoing. Within the employment domain, the criminal credential has indeed become a salient marker for employers, with increasing numbers using background checks to screen out undesirable applicants.

    Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration by Devah Pager, an excerpt

    Pager is not an activist clamoring for reform but instead presents her findings in a clearheaded manner, pointing out the societal consequences of the predicament and suggesting ways for change. Written for the general reader with a nod to the academic audience, the book is both informative and convincing.

    You may purchase this title at these fine bookstores. Outside the USA, see our international sales information. University of Chicago Press: About Contact News Giving to the Press. Language of the Gun Bernard E. On the Outside David J.