Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Punishment and Inequality in America

Punishment and Inequality in America

Bruce Western
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 264
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Punishment and Inequality in America
    Book Description:

    Over the last thirty years, the prison population in the United States has increased more than sevenfold to over 2 million people, including vastly disproportionate numbers of minorities and people with little education. For some racial and educational groups, incarceration has become a depressingly regular experience, and prison culture and influence pervade their communities. Almost 60 percent of black male high school drop-outs in their early thirties have spent time in prison. In Punishment and Inequality in America, sociologist Bruce Western explores the recent era of mass incarceration and the serious social and economic consequences it has wrought. Punishment and Inequality in America dispels many of the myths about the relationships among crime, imprisonment, and inequality. While many people support the increase in incarceration because of recent reductions in crime, Western shows that the decrease in crime rates in the 1990s was mostly fueled by growth in city police forces and the pacification of the drug trade. Getting “tough on crime” with longer sentences only explains about 10 percent of the fall in crime, but has come at a significant cost. Punishment and Inequality in America reveals a strong relationship between incarceration and severely dampened economic prospects for former inmates. Western finds that because of their involvement in the penal system, young black men hardly benefited from the economic boom of the 1990s. Those who spent time in prison had much lower wages and employment rates than did similar men without criminal records. The losses from mass incarceration spread to the social sphere as well, leaving one out of ten young black children with a father behind bars by the end of the 1990s, thereby helping perpetuate the damaging cycle of broken families, poverty, and crime. The recent explosion of imprisonment is exacting heavy costs on American society and exacerbating inequality. Whereas college or the military were once the formative institutions in young men’s lives, prison has increasingly usurped that role in many communities. Punishment and Inequality in America profiles how the growth in incarceration came about and the toll it is taking on the social and economic fabric of many American communities.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-555-9
    Subjects: Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were dispatched to America to study the penitentiary, a novel institution generating great discussion among the social reformers of Europe. At that time, two institutions—Auburn State Prison in New York and the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia—offered leading examples of a new approach to the public management of criminals. The institutions were devised for moral correction. Rigorous programs of work and isolation would remedy the moral defects of criminal offenders so they might safely return to society. The penitentiary was billed as a triumph of progressive thinking that provided a...


    • CHAPTER 1 Mass Imprisonment
      (pp. 11-33)

      If prisons affected no one except the criminals on the inside, they would matter less. But, after thirty years of penal population growth, the impact of America’s prisons extends far beyond their walls. By zealously punishing law-breakers—including a large new class of nonviolent drug offenders—the criminal justice system at the end of the 1990s drew into its orbit families and whole communities. These most fragile families and neighborhoods were the least equipped to counter any shocks or additional deprivations.

      We normally relate the prison boom to the problem of crime in America. Some say that we have more...

    • CHAPTER 2 Inequality, Crime, and the Prison Boom
      (pp. 34-51)

      Extraordinary incarceration rates among young, less-educated black men at the end of the 1990s have a seemingly obvious explanation: black youth with little schooling commit a great deal of crime. Indeed, criminologists report high rates of serious violence among young black men, with strong indications that violence is concentrated among the poorest.¹ Even more suggestively, the emergence of mass imprisonment coincided with a twenty-year rise in economic inequality that stalled the economic progress of less-educated black men during the 1980s and 1990s. Unemployment and stagnant wages may have driven these men to crime. The story is more complicated than these...

    • CHAPTER 3 The Politics and Economics of Punitive Criminal Justice
      (pp. 52-82)

      The American penal system is now the largest in the world. For young black men in inner cities, government presents itself mostly as the policeman, the prison guard, or the parole officer. By the end of the 1990s, criminal justice authorities had become a constant presence in poor urban neighborhoods. As recently as the late 1970s, however, the penal population was only onequarter as large and young male ghetto residents did not routinely go to prison. Growth in the prison population was not directly related to a rise in crime. National crime trends did not track prison population growth. At...


    • CHAPTER 4 Invisible Inequality
      (pp. 85-107)

      Although numerous, the poor are invisible in America’s affluent society. The everyday hardships of low-income families are unfamiliar to those who are economically comfortable. Poor people are seldom depicted in the popular culture, in movies, or on television. The poor are especially invisible during periods of economic prosperity. At the end of the 1990s, unemployment rates dropped to historically low levels, yet large numbers of workers remained poor in their minimum-wage jobs. In the context of a booming stock market and rising incomes among the rich, growth in the numbers of low-income workers fell outside everyday understanding of the major...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Labor Market After Prison
      (pp. 108-130)

      Through the end of the 1990s, the American labor market was celebrated for its dramatic job growth that contrasted with the stagnant employment figures coming out of western Europe. For young men at the bottom of the labor market, this triumphalism was premature. The mass incarceration of less-educated minority men concealed declining employment and produced phantom reductions in wage inequality. This invisible inequality defied buoyant assessments of American prosperity.

      The economic expansion slowed, but did not reverse, a thirty-year rise in American economic inequality. Termed “the new inequality,” the income distribution had spread more for men than women, and most...

    • CHAPTER 6 Incarceration, Marriage, and Family Life
      (pp. 131-167)

      As imprisonment became common for less-educated black men by the end of the 1990s, the penal system became familiar to their families. By 1999, 30 percent of noncollege black men in their mid-thirties had been to prison and through incarceration many were separated from their wives, girlfriends, and children. Women and children in low-income urban communities now routinely cope with husbands and fathers lost to incarceration and adjust to their return after release. Poor single men are also affected, burdened by the stigma of a prison record in the marriage markets of disadvantaged urban neighborhoods.

      Discussions of the family life...

    • CHAPTER 7 Did the Prison Boom Cause the Crime Drop?
      (pp. 168-188)

      Prisons conceal and deepen social inequality. Hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged jobless men are excluded from the usual measures of poverty and unemployment. Men who have been incarcerated make less money, see more unemployment, and are more likely to split up with their partners. The poor are made poorer and have fewer prospects for a stable family life. For much of the policy debate about prisons, these findings are beside the point. Prisons are not social welfare agencies; they are instruments for crime control. In policy debates, the utility of incarceration is usually judged by its effect on crime, not...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 189-198)

    In the last decades of the twentieth century, mass imprisonment became a fact of American life. The deep involvement of poor black men in the criminal justice system became normal. Those drawn into the net of the penal system live differently from the rest of us. Employment is more insecure, wages are lower. Families are disrupted as incarceration separates children from their fathers and breaks up couples. Pervasive incarceration and its effects on economic opportunity and family life have given the penal system a central role in the lives of the urban poor.

    The evidence to support this picture was...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 199-212)
    (pp. 213-234)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 235-250)