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


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

by Devah Pager



At the start of the 1970s, incarceration appeared to be a practice in decline. Criticized for its overuse and detrimental effects, practitioners and reformers looked to community-based alternatives as a more promising strategy for managing criminal offenders. A 1967 report published by the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice concluded: “Life in many institutions is at best barren and futile, at worst unspeakably brutal and degrading. The conditions in which [prisoners] live are the poorest possible preparation for their successful reentry into society, and often merely reinforces in them a pattern of manipulation or destructiveness.” The commission’s primary recommendation involved developing “more extensive community programs providing special, intensive treatment as an alternative to institutionalization for both juvenile and adult offenders.” Echoing this sentiment, a 1973 report by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals took a strong stand against the use of incarceration. “The prison, the reformatory, and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.” The commission firmly recommended that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed.” Following what appeared to be the current of the time, historian David Rothman in 1971 confidently proclaimed, “We have been gradually escaping from institutional responses and one can foresee the period when incarceration will be used still more rarely than it is today.”

Quite opposite to the predictions of the time, incarceration began a steady ascent, with prison populations expanding sevenfold over the next three decades. Today the United States boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with more than two million individuals currently behind bars. Characterized by a rejection of the ideals of rehabilitation and an emphasis on “tough on crime” policies, the practice of punishment over the past thirty years has taken a radically different turn from earlier periods in history. Reflecting the stark shift in orientation, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report in 1992 stating “there is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets.” Far removed from earlier calls for decarceration and community supervision, recent crime policy has emphasized containment and harsh punishment as a primary strategy of crime control.

The revolving door

Since the wave of tough on crime rhetoric spread throughout the nation in the early 1970s, the dominant concern of crime policy has been getting criminals off the streets. Surprisingly little thought, however, has gone into developing a longer-term strategy for coping with criminal offenders. With more than 95 percent of those incarcerated eventually released, the problems of offender management do not end at the prison walls. According to one estimate, there are currently more than twelve million ex-felons in the United States, representing roughly 9 percent of the male working-age population. The yearly influx of returning inmates is double the current number of legal immigrants entering the United States from Mexico, Central America, and South America combined.

Despite the vast numbers of inmates leaving prison each year, little provision has been made for their release; as a result, many do not remain out for long. Of those recently released, nearly two-thirds will be charged with new crimes, and more than 40 percent will return to prison within three years. In fact, the revolving door of the prison has now become its own source of growth, with the faces of former inmates increasingly represented among annual admissions to prison. By the end of the 1990s, more than a third of those entering state prison had been there before.

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. In particular, incarceration is associated with limited future employment opportunities and earnings potential, which themselves are among the strongest predictors of desistance from crime. Given the immense barriers to successful reentry, it is little wonder that such a high proportion of those released from prison quickly make their way back through the prison’s revolving door.

The criminalization of young, black men

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.S. population. 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. 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. Prison is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation’s most marginalized groups. 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. 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. The stereotype of blacks as criminals is deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of white Americans, irrespective of the perceiver’s level of prejudice or personal beliefs.

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.

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 credentialing of stigma

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. The “credential” of a criminal record, like educational or professional credentials, constitutes a formal and enduring classification of social status, which can be used to regulate access and opportunity across numerous social, economic, and political domains.

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. The majority of employers claim that they would not knowingly hire an applicant with a criminal background. These employers appear less concerned about specific information conveyed by a criminal conviction and its bearing on a particular job, but rather view this credential as an indicator of general employability or trustworthiness. Well beyond the single incident at its origin, the credential comes to stand for a broader internal disposition.

The power of the credential lies in its recognition as an official and legitimate means of evaluating and classifying individuals. The negative credential of a criminal record represents one such tool, offering formal certification of the offenders among us and official notice of those demographic groups most commonly implicated. To understand fully the impact of this negative credential, however, we must rely on more than speculation as to when and how these official labels are invoked as the basis for enabling or denying opportunity. Because credentials are often highly correlated with other indicators of social status or stigma (e.g., race, gender, class), we must examine their direct and independent impact. In addition, credentials may affect certain groups differently than others, with the official marker of criminality carrying more or less stigma depending on the race of its bearer. As increasing numbers of young men are marked by their contact with the criminal justice system, it becomes a critical priority to understand the costs and consequences of this now prevalent form of negative credential.

What do we know about the consequences of incarceration?

Despite the vast political and financial resources that have been mobilized toward prison expansion, very little systematic attention has been focused on the potential problems posed by the large and increasing number of inmates being released each year. A snapshot of ex-offenders one year after release reveals a rocky path of reintegration, with rates of joblessness in excess of 75 percent and rates of rearrest close to 45 percent. But one simple question remains unanswered: Are the employment problems of ex-offenders caused by their offender status, or does this population simply comprise a group of individuals who were never very successful at mainstream involvement in the first place? This question is important, for its answer points to one of two very different sets of policy recommendations. To the extent that the problems of prisoner reentry reflect the challenges of a population poorly equipped for conventional society, our policies would be best targeted toward some combination of treatment, training, and, at the extreme, containment. If, on the other hand, the problems of prisoner reentry are to some degree caused by contact with the criminal justice system itself, then a closer examination of the (unintended) consequences of America’s war on crime may be warranted. Establishing the nature of the relationship between incarceration and subsequent outcomes, then, is critical to developing strategies best suited to address this rapidly expanding ex-offender population.

In an attempt to resolve the substantive and methodological questions surrounding the consequences of incarceration, this book provides both an experimental and an observational approach to studying the barriers to employment for individuals with criminal records. The first stage observes the experiences of black and white job seekers with criminal records in comparison to equally qualified nonoffenders. In the second stage, I turn to the perspectives of employers in order to better understand the concerns that underlie their hiring decisions. Overall, this study represents an accounting of trends that have gone largely unnoticed or underappreciated by academics, policy makers, and the general public. After thirty years of prison expansion, only recently has broad attention turned to the problems of prisoner reentry in an era of mass incarceration. By studying the ways in which the mark of a criminal record shapes and constrains subsequent employment opportunities, this book sheds light on a powerful, emergent mechanism of labor market stratification. Further, this analysis recognizes that an investigation of incarceration in the contemporary United States would be inadequate without careful attention to the dynamics of race. As described earlier, there is a strong link between race and crime, both real and perceived, and yet the implications of this relationship remain poorly understood. This study takes a hard look at the labor market experiences of young black men, both with and without criminal pasts. In doing so, we gain a close-up view of the powerful role race continues to play in shaping the labor market opportunities available to young men. The United States remains sharply divided along color lines. Understanding the mechanisms that perpetuate these divisions represents a crucial step toward their resolution.

To read more about Marked, click here.