Prison System in America

IV. Coercive Mobility in the 21st Century

The aim of get-tough sentencing policies was to reduce crime and improve community life, but neither policymakers nor the public anticipated how putting so many people in prison would damage the communities from which they were removed. While mass imprisonment has indeed incapacitated many who would otherwise have an overall negative effect on community life, it has also removed thousands of people who had a net positive effect on the economy, families, and the community as a whole. Many communities now face economic hardship, family disruption, and more crime due to high levels of incarceration.

A growing literature has begun to document the effects on community life of America’s 30-year incarceration binge, but only a few studies have analyzed the complex relationship between incarceration and crime. Most scholarship that examines the incarceration–crime relationship has applied a social disorganization framework. In their seminal Chicago Area Project, Shaw and McKay (1942) found that the highest crime rates were in neighborhoods marked by social disorganization: dilapidated housing and infrastructure; unemployment; poverty; and most important, high residential mobility—people moving in and out of the neighborhood at a high rate. Much subsequent research confirms that crime is disproportionately concentrated in these types of neighborhoods. Because of conditions in these neighborhoods, those who “make it” move out, eroding a community’s ability to maintain primary institutions like schools, churches, and neighborhood associations. Social disorganization theorists argue that high residential mobility limits the formation of strong social networks essential in controlling crime, undermining the stability necessary to establish the elements of social capital (i.e., trust, empowerment, norms, and reciprocity) that serve as the backbone of effective mechanisms of informal social control.

Coercive mobility (incarceration and prisoner reentry) is concentrated in poor, urban, and predominantly minority neighborhoods and is an important source of residential mobility that leads to social disorganization and crime. But unlike voluntary mobility, coercive mobility has profound negative effects on other aspects of social life such as labor market participation, family functioning, and political participation. While not all coercive mobility results in social disorganization, at some level (a “tipping point”) the benefit of removing those disruptive to the community (criminals) is outweighed by the costs of removing parents, workers, and family members who provide a net positive effect on social capital and informal social control. When the tipping point is reached, too much incarceration can weaken community economies, family relationships, and overall social capital and lead to higher crime rates.

Clear, Rose, Waring, and Scully (2003) collected community- level data regarding prison admission rates, prison release rates, and crime rates for several neighborhoods in Tallahassee, Florida, and Renauer, Cunningham, Feyerherm, O’Connor, and Bellatty (2006) collected similar data on 95 communities in the Portland, Oregon, area. Both research efforts found coercive mobility concentrated in poor communities with large minority populations, and communities with extremely high coercive mobility had higher subsequent crime rates even when controlling for other indicators of social disorganization. As expected, the relationship between coercive mobility and crime was curvilinear— incarceration reduced crime at moderate levels, but began to increase crime rates when they reached a tipping point of about 1.7 per 100 people in Tallahassee and about 2.75 per 100 in Portland.

High levels of incarceration may not lead to less crime because communities with the highest levels of incarceration (poor, predominantly minority ones) are actually weakened by the very thing that is supposed to make them safer. Research described above supports the idea that, at the community level, low and moderate levels of incarceration can reduce crime, but high levels of incarceration can increase it by reducing social and neighborhood capital.

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