Vol. 16 No. 10 (October, 2006) pp.845-848
PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA, by Bruce Western. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. 247pp. Cloth $29.95. ISBN: 0871548941.
Reviewed by Bruce Peabody, Department of Social Sciences and History, Fairleigh Dickinson University. Email: bgpeabody [at] msn.com.
Although Bruce Western’s title promises a general survey of crime and inequality in the U.S., his actual focus is more narrow: “How can we understand the fabulous growth in the American penal system [over the past three decades] and its effects on the poor and minority communities from which prison inmates are drawn and ultimately return?” (p.4). Western answers this question by arguing that America’s enthusiasm for “large-scale imprisonment” (p.xii) since the 1980s has produced a number of largely unheeded consequences for both society at large and a discrete demographic group: young, urban, and uneducated African-American males.
Western contends that, among other effects, the “prison boom” has distorted our assessment of the prosperity ushered in during the 1990s, since millions of individuals incarcerated over this period were not included in official tallies of economic health. Moreover, Western argues, the dramatic expansion of the prison population (a 700% increase over the past thirty years) has deepened racial and class inequality. The disproportionate (both in terms of their population and rates of crime commission) growth of African American prisoners has incidentally damaged their prospects of ever assuming a “normal” life sequence of stable relationships and the “modest affluence that comes with age” (p.129), producing an entrenched underclass.
The connection Western hopes to draw between these various claims is not always entirely clear, but taken together one might see them as providing the basis for a condemning and somewhat novel reassessment of our commitment to a policy of “mass incarceration.” PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA offers an array of evidence suggesting that the beneficial effects of widescale imprisonment have been exaggerated and its costs downplayed and ignored.
The book is divided into two major parts. Part I details the extent and causes of the prison boom. Western rejects the conventional assessment that the contemporary surge in prisons and prisoners tracked a rise in crime rates and perpetrators. Despite their high rates of incarceration, “poor and minority men were much less involved in crime in 2000 than twenty years earlier . . . . [A]lthough disadvantaged men became much more law-abiding [over this period], their chances of going to prison rose to historically high levels” (p.50). Western cites different factors in explaining trends in crime and imprisonment, including the growth in incarcerations for drug offenses, and the nation’s overall shift from a rehabilitative to a punitive approach to criminal justice, with the consequence that more criminal convictions resulted in imprisonment, and for longer terms (p.50). [*846]
In Part II, Western evaluates the impact of mass incarceration, most interestingly by uncovering its effects on social inequality – through often creative and original measures. In his chapter on “The Labor Market After Prison,” for example, Western calculates that the stigma and opportunity costs associated with being imprisoned comes with a specific pricetag: African-Americans convicted of crimes effectively lose $86,000 over the course of a lifetime in the form of reduced wages, unemployment, and jobs inferior to those they would have received without a record. Another chapter recounts various ways in which incarceration leads to stresses on family life – breaking up relationships and making marriage untenable.
Much of the early discussion in PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA is both familiar and grim. Scholars like Elliott Currie (1998) have detailed the enormous surge in the number of U.S. prisoners from 1970 to the 1990s, such that today about 7 million, or nearly 6% of the U.S. population are imprisoned, under probation or parole, or otherwise being “supervised” by the criminal justice system. Western’s account of the concentration of inmates amongst certain social and ethnic groups – especially young, less educated black men – is also alarming. “Among black male [high school] dropouts born in the late 1960s,” he recounts, “60 percent had prison records by their early thirties” (p.xii). But again, researchers like Currie and Michael Tonry (1995) have covered these issues.
The most important contributions of PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA are, instead, largely untold stories underlying the prison boom. In particular, Western makes the case that racial and economic inequalities in the U.S. have been exacerbated by the U.S. penal system, especially through hidden costs to inmates and society “not calculated in the usual assessments of criminal justice policy.”
Western’s turn to sociological theory is useful in this context, as he contends that incarceration interrupts the normal “sequence of life course stages – completing school, finding a job, getting married, and starting a family” (p. 4). This approach offers an insightful conceptual framework – providing a sketch of the many obstacles convicts have in becoming integrated with their communities and assuming a socially productive trajectory. In turn, this life course orientation forces us to consider the fate of the prisoner in context – how his (and Western’s focus is decidedly male) incarceration affects not just an individual “life path” but the perhaps surprisingly “extensive kinship ties” of prisoners. The communities and groups indirectly buffeted by imprisonment are important to consider because they represent some of the “most fragile families and neighborhoods” in society (p.11).
Western suggests that many of the dynamics he observes have an ingrained and perpetuating character. Policy makers and voters have “a keen appetite for punishment” (p.195) that is politically difficult to diminish. [*847] Moreover, mass incarceration itself “may be a self-defeating strategy for public safety.” The high percentage of today’s prisoners who come from socially and economically marginal groups, along with the diminished life prospects that greet ex-convicts, “may sow the seeds for more crime, rather than less” (p.168).
PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA is mostly atheoretical, with two consequences that diminish the book’s overall objectives and power. First, the project’s lack of sustained attention to theoretical discussions allows concepts important to the overall argument to remain somewhat nebulous. Thus, Western claims at various points that prisons have replaced other institutions (like labor unions and the military) in collectively shaping young men’s lives and identities. Mass incarceration “institutionalized” and transformed “a chronically idle population of young men with little education” (p.4). But without a stronger sense of what Western means by institutionalization, and what and how black inmates have been “constituted” (p.30), we have some difficulty understanding this and other conclusions. As Western states, “although the growth in imprisonment was propelled by racial and class division, the penal system has emerged as a novel institution in a uniquely American system of social inequality” (p.8). What are the novel features of our institutions of correction? What, exactly, is unique about our system of inequality?
A second effect of the book’s relative disinterest in developing an underlying theoretical argument is that the reader is left somewhat uncertain about the broader implications of the work. Is there something timeless about Western’s observations about the effects of the prison boom and how it has exacerbated racial divisions? As indicated, Western alludes to the self-perpetuating character of our incarceration regime, but without fuller treatment, one is uncertain how seriously to take this contention or what it means for our future.
In addition to these points, PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA presents a somewhat reified picture of “the prison” and the “criminal justice system.” With some important exceptions – such as his account of how opportunistic politicians in the 1960s and 1970s played on white fears about rising crime and civil rights – Western largely excludes the experiences, decisions, and agency of lawmakers, voters, judges, prosecutors, and even prisoners from his story of mass incarceration and rising inequality.
This oversight leads to missed insights. Consider the supposed puzzle Western associates with the continued high rate of incarceration of offenders who are committing less crime than in the past. Students of American politics might account for the apparent non-responsiveness of our penal system in this context by exploring the complex mix of individual incentives, institutional rules, and barriers to collective action that often mark legislative policymaking. In New York [*848] state, for example, despite a longstanding consensus between both parties, along with the state assembly and governor, lawmakers have been unable to amend the punitive Rockefeller era drug laws – in part because the various parties who concur, in principle, that change is necessary, can not agree on how credit for reform will be allocated.
In addition to its utility for scholars, PUNISHMENT AND INEQUALITY IN AMERICA is appropriate reading for advanced undergraduates or graduate students studying criminal justice or public policy. In asking us to consider the hidden meaning of “mass imprisonment” for how we understand and assess crime, inequality, and economic prosperity, Bruce Western trains our attention to a vital set of topics with intelligence, honesty, and originality. To the extent that his important work suffers from any shortcomings of analysis or prose, these limitations are perhaps most disappointing because they may diminish the potential for Western’s ideas to receive the broadest possible audience.
Currie, Elliott. 1998. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT IN AMERICA. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
Tonry, Michael. 1995. MALIGN NEGLECT – RACE, CRIME, AND PUNISHMENT. New York: Oxford University Press.
© Copyright 2006 by the author, Bruce Peabody.
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