Review: Pager, Marked

August 29, 2007
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Daniel Lazare has written a fascinating review of several books on America’s growing prison crisis for Monday’s edition of the Nation. According to Lazare, the U.S. prison system currently incarcerates about a quarter of the world’s prisoners with “about 3.2 percent of the adult population under some form of criminal-justice supervision.” And for African Americans, Lazare writes, “the numbers are even more astonishing. By the mid-1990s, 7 percent of black males were behind bars, while the rate of imprisonment for black males between the ages of 25 and 29 now stands at one in eight.” But according to Lazare this is only half the problem; what happens after this large, racially disparate prison population is released to face the prospects of finding a job and living without crime? Lazare turns to Devah Pager’s new book, Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration for the answer:

In Marked, Devah Pager, who also teaches sociology at Princeton, uses a simple technique to show how mass incarceration has undone the small amount of racial progress achieved in the 1960s and ’70s. Working with two pairs of male college students in Milwaukee, one white and the other black, she drilled them on how to present themselves and answer questions. Then, arming them with phony résumés, she sent them out to apply for entry-level jobs. The résumés were identical in all respects but one. Where one member of each team had nothing indicating a criminal record, the other’s résumés showed an eighteen-month sentence for drugs.…
The results? The white applicant with a prison record was half as likely to be called back for a second interview as the white applicant without. But the black applicant without a criminal record was no more likely to be called back than the white applicant with a record, while the black applicant with a record was two-thirds less likely to be called back than the black applicant without. The black applicant with a record therefore wound up doubly penalized—as a black man and as an ex-con. With the chances of a call-back reduced to just 5 percent, the overall effect, Pager writes, was “almost total exclusion from this labor market.…” This is not only bad news for those arrested but bad news for those who have to foot the bill for their incarceration and for dealing with the social problems that labor-market exclusion on this scale helps generate.”

Read an excerpt from the book.

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