Punishment, crime, and poverty

Darren Wheelock, Christopher Uggen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

19 Scopus citations


The association between crime, punishment, and poverty has long been the subject of sociological and criminological investigation. Recent work has shifted attention to the role of criminal punishment in explaining contemporary trends in inequality (Clear 2007; Clear, Rose, and Ryder 2001; Pager 2003; Petersilia 2003; Pettit and Western 2004; Western 2006; Western and Pettit 2000). Despite the strides in this area, research linking racial disparities in criminal sanctions to different domains of inequality remains incomplete and largely segmented. For example, although studies have examined the impact of felon disenfranchisement on the democratic process (Uggen, Manza, and Thompson 2006), its impact on the voting patterns of racial and ethnic minorities has received less fanfare (for a notable exception, see Demeo and Ochoa 2003). In this chapter we describe and explain how the role of formal and informal consequences of criminal sanctions may perpetuate racial and ethnic inequality. We contend that felony convictions and incarceration entrench individuals more deeply in disadvantage, with effects that ripple outward to affect larger communities. We offer a brief overview of the emerging literature that examines the consequences of criminal sanctions. Building on that work, we argue that criminal punishment forms a system of disadvantage that sustains and exacerbates racial and ethnic inequalities. Our systems of disadvantage framework rests on the premise that individuals with felony convictions face a host of restrictions on their socioeconomic, political, and family life that should be viewed as interconnected rather than separate consequences of their felon status. These barriers conjoin for individuals and groups, contributing to both cumulative disadvantage for individuals and concentrated disadvantage for communities. As discussed throughout this volume, the persistence of poverty and inequality is largely due to its diffuse nature. In de- veloping our thesis, we begin by asking whether and how criminal sanctions embed disadvantaged individuals more securely in poverty. To be sure, communities may benefit when the criminal justice system removes violent and disruptive offenders. Public safety represents a delicate balance between demands for strict crime control and the just and equitable treatment of those accused of crime. Since the mid-1970s, the United States has embarked on a historically unprecedented program of racialized mass incarceration, with profound and far-reaching effects for communities of color (Bobo and Thompson 2006). Many observers now argue that the rate and severity of punishment levied on African Americans, in particular, far exceeds that needed to preserve public safety (Clear 2007; Uggen, Manza, and Thompson 2006; Western 2006). Those at greatest risk of contact with the criminal justice system and criminal victimization-young black men-are clearly the most vulnerable to their deleterious consequences. Young African American men with low levels of education are far more likely than any other social group to be incarcerated (Western 2006), and to become victims of homicide or robbery (U.S. Department of Justice 2005; U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation 2004). The growing numbers of young black men with felony convictions and histories of imprisonment has led to an ever-increasing criminal class: A group excluded from the social institutions that may alleviate economic hardship and diminish further criminal involvement (Uggen, Manza, and Thompson 2006). In examining how punishment may sustain racial and ethnic inequality, we focus specifically on the formal and informal consequences of felony conviction. Despite hopes and expectations that released prisoners and other felons will reintegrate into their communities, state and federal laws prohibit convicted felons from fully participating in social institutions that would facilitate this process. These formal laws and administrative regulations, collectively known as collateral consequences, exclude felons and ex-felons from social institutions such as the labor market, higher education, the political process, and public assistance. Informal consequences are equally salient in this regard, yet operate through complex social processes involving stigma and discrimination. Informal consequences suppress employability and occupational attainment (Western 2002; Western, Kling, and Weiman 2001), disrupt family ties (Uggen, Wakefield, and Western 2005; Edin, Nelson, and Paranal 2004; Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999) and impose debilitating stigmas (Pager 2003). Together, formal and informal consequences act to translate criminal punishment into a system of disadvantage. Just as rates of criminal punishment vary dramatically across racial and ethnic groups, so too do collateral consequences that ripple outward to affect the families and communities of those who are punished. With hundreds of thousands of individuals exiting the penal system each year and even more receiving felony convictions, millions of individuals now face the difficult challenge of reentering society despite having low skills and meager prospects for improving their economic situation. Children and caregivers must adjust to the removal of parents and the reduced household income from their diminished employment prospects when released (Wakefield 2007). Furthermore, the spatial concentration of released prisoners, and the probationers and parolees who remain under correctional supervision in their communities, engenders similar processes at the neighborhood level. Disadvantaged neighborhoods face the difficult task of reintegrating large numbers of released prisoners while dealing with the socially divisive impact of offending and victimization (Clear 2007).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Colors of Poverty
Subtitle of host publicationWhy Racial and Ethnic Disparities Persist
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages32
ISBN (Print)9780871545398
StatePublished - Dec 1 2008


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